Why the Labor Strike Is Back
The largest private sector strike in more than a decade is now in its third week. The walkout of more than 49,000 General Motors auto workers comes on the heels of a series of successful strikes by workers around the country—teachers and nurses and beyond.
Though it had fallen out of favor, the strike—the most effective weapon workers have at their disposal—is back with a fervor not seen in decades. Why? “Workers are pissed off in this country,” says Jane McAlevey, a veteran labor organizer and author of Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell) and No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age. But that’s only part of the explanation, McAlevey says. Workers strike when they see that strikes work.
I recently spoke with McAlevey by phone to discuss America’s wave of walkouts, why the strike disappeared, why the Chicago teachers strike in 2012 is so important, and how to effectively organize a strike. McAlevey had just returned from an hourlong run when I reached her. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
We’ve taken notice of all of the strikes that have been unfolding, or are upcoming—
It’s so good.
My run, the water I’m drinking right now, and the strikes.
Ah, yes, the Holy Trinity. So I thought now would be a good time to get a better idea of strike strategy and what makes striking so important, when organized properly. For a long while strikes had really fallen out of favor. But in the past few years, we’ve seen quite a lot of them, and quite a few successful ones at that. What has changed?
The reason we’re seeing so many is because there have been so many successful strikes. Workers learn to strike when they watch other workers strike and win. That’s where the formula is playing out right now. To put a pinpoint on it: Most people are saying they began in February 2018 with the West Virginia strike. I think the truth is the beginning was the Chicago teachers strike in 2012. It’s that incredible education strike that took Chicago by storm for nine days, that really began to raise workers’ expectations that the strike could win again in the post-Reagan environment.
What’s the history there?
Basically, what happens is Reagan replaces 12,000 air traffic control workers who were striking in 1981. This wasn’t like replacing workers who were easy to replace; it was replacing hard-to-replace people with a very serious skill. And he didn’t just fire 12,000 workers; he destroyed their lives. Many of those workers never got jobs again. They destroyed the union—it went bankrupt.
So that’s 1981, and that was coming on top of pulling out of the financial crisis in New York City in 1976. The ’70s were sort of the beginning of the shortcomings of the postwar boom years in the United States.
The downward pressure begins in the private sector. It’s the beginning of moving jobs outside of the United States. If they’re not moved outside of the United States, a lot of unionized, good manufacturing jobs have already begun to move from the Northeastern and Midwestern states into the union-busting “right to work” Southern states, where they were de-unionized when they reopened. A lot of workers in the so-called private sector—think of them as the manufacturing sector—were feeling a lot of pressure by the late 1970s, vulnerable that they might lose their job if they go on strike, and they were happy to hang on to a good union job. And then you’ve got Reagan firing people in 1981. The combination of the two was devastating. Unions begin to think: “We can’t really use the strike weapon anymore.”
I would say that the officialdom of the trade union movement in the 1980s were very risk averse. They assumed that the basic decent contract standards they had would last forever. They felt more comfortable sitting down at the table with management. They were missing the giant threat on the horizon of their own inaction. In my second book, No Shortcuts, when I give the history of the birth, the rebirth, the collapse, the rebuild of the Chicago Teachers Union, I say that leaders like in Chicago, who had taken over that union in the 1980s, were just risk averse and didn’t really believe in striking and were scared of striking. They began to use the Reagan example as an excuse of why we could never strike. Then in the 1990s and 2000s, the strike does actually recede dramatically.
By the time I came back to organizing full time, which is 1996, there’s a lot of talk about beginning to organize again. But if you look at it retrospectively, the conversation about “we’re going to organize all over again” never really included the conversation about workers’ ultimate power, which is the strike weapon. It wasn’t like, “We’re going to fight to the death to win again.” It was: “We’re going to organize again. We’re going to grow the labor movement again.” That commitment to organizing was really a commitment to growth. And it was growth in, I think, a kind of narrow way: “We’re going to grow the union membership.”
For some of us, we were always running strikes for that whole period of the new wave of the trade union movement. They just weren’t quite as big as the strikes we’re seeing now, and they didn’t get the attention they deserved. But we were largely winning, so for some of us it was like, “If we prepare well, and we bring the whole community in and the members are ready to go, some of us are really winning very good standards in contracts right now.” So the debate’s been going on for decades.
A little illness knocked me out of the ring for a while, and that’s how I decided to start writing the first book because I think it’s worth telling a story about, hey, for the last 10 years, a bunch of us were helping workers learn to fight and win, using strikes and being militant and seeing the community as the primary ally. So it’s gurgling the whole time, and when the progressives inside of the Chicago Teachers Union run for office against what we call “do-nothing leadership” and win in 2010, at that point their contract was expiring 12 months later. They had very little time to rebuild an entire union, but rebuild it they did, because, like you’re seeing in other states now, it’s a reflection of how much anger exists at the rank-and-file base. Workers are pissed off in this country. It’s a seriously pissed-off country where people are frustrated, upset, hurting, living lives of misery.
The Great Depression in the late 1920s, early 1930s, the abject misery was somehow more visible, because the absolute unemployment rate was 25 percent. So people saw the misery more readily. But I think what’s happening today is a more disguised form of equal levels of misery because it’s grotesque underemployment. It’s like capitalism learned not to fully unemploy everybody this time, but just string them out. If you look at underemployment, unemployment, precarious positions, workers working two jobs to make ends meet, two-parent households working four jobs to raise the kids, hardly ever seeing their kids, switching the kids up between day shift and night shift, not having money if there’s a health care crisis, not making their car loan payments, and in debt as 60 percent of Americans are right now, it’s hard to argue we’re not at a pretty high state of misery, and people are pissed.
The way I’m looking at the timeline of what happened: Chicago sets an example. They have this extraordinary strike in 2012. It takes everyone’s breath away in the most exciting way. What they show, significantly, is that despite the movie Waiting for “Superman” and despite the rise of the Wall Street–funded charter school movement, despite a multimillion-dollar campaign to give teachers a black eye and blame them for the underfunding and defunding of public education, what people saw and took their breath away was: “Hey, wait a minute, the community in Chicago rallied around those teachers. They didn’t blame them. They stood with them.” And when workers in the rest of the country, especially teachers, saw that parents sided with teachers, that to me is the beginning of the spark.
What was the jump from then to the 2018 strikes?
What happens is a bunch of Chicago teachers who are progressive folks, they get involved in the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign, and there’s a flow of information and a flow of relationships that begin to build. There’s a whole network of teachers meeting around the Bernie Sanders campaign. That’s absolutely how the information flowed into West Virginia, which is the first one of the next round in 2018. This is a key linkage through the Sanders campaign. They’re young. Bernie Sanders beat Hillary Clinton in every single county in West Virginia. So you have fired-up young teachers in West Virginia, who were the Bernie Sanders troops on the ground, who actually thought that he really had a shot of winning, right? He doesn’t win. A year goes by. A whole lot of energy is going on in West Virginia with these young smart teachers, and then right as they’re thinking, “What do we do now with all this energy we’ve built up?” the state proposes to take away their health care, to impose profound, huge cutbacks in their health care, that’s going to make them pay a lot more money—they’re going to have to wear something like a Fitbit on their wrist, to try and keep their premiums down.
This is a state with one of the highest poverty rates in the country. They’re going to blame people’s health on why they’re going to make them pay more for health care. It’s really insulting, and as the teachers say in my forthcoming book, a huge insult to their intelligence and their sense of privacy and their sense of dignity. And that sense of dignity is big. That was the final straw. Finally they said, “Okay, enough is enough, we’re going to start to build something here.” And they began to organize.
I think that had Chicago not happened, we don’t know what would’ve happened in 2018. When I started the call by saying workers learn to go on strike by watching other workers go on strike and win, that Chicago strike was the beginning of the first time people really saw workers winning big in a high-risk, all-out strike in a major city in America.
And then, boom: They win, and that sets off a whole round of strikes. Fast-forward to now. There’s the General Motors workers, who absolutely deserve to win this strike. Everybody needs to throw their weight behind these striking workers because it’s across multiple states; it’s in a historic sector of the economy; and it’s a way to say to a company that American taxpayers bailed out for $11 billion, “Give us, in the form of the workers, some of that taxpayer money back, put it in the pocket of the workers in the communities who deserve it.”
Since you bring it up: I’ve read about how corrupt UAW leadership is and how a lot of the workers didn’t know the specific demands that leadership was making of GM. How do workers win under those conditions?
I interviewed some workers who learned about the strike the same day the media did. As someone who’s run a bunch of strikes, I would say it’s certainly not the approach I’ve ever been involved in. When we’re getting ready to strike, there’s tremendous rank-and-file-worker involvement. There’s a build up to a strike where you’re doing lots of preparation; you’re doing picket-line training; you’re recruiting captains; you’re building a contract action team; you’re shoring up and being sure that that each facility has worker leaders ready to go. But what’s also true is, the UAW workers are similar to those in West Virginia, where the teachers were building on a really strong culture where strikes existed for a long time. The women in West Virginia in the education workforce have fathers and grandfathers who struck the crap out of mines. When I interviewed some of the teachers, one of them said to me she went home and said to her father, “Yeah, we did it! We did a one-day strike!” And her father looked at her and said, “What the fuck is a one-day strike? If you go out, you go out!”
I think this is happening in the UAW strike. There’s ability for those workers right now to rely on the muscle memory of the history of the strikes in the auto sector. I think there’s a combination of things there: The top officials in the Auto Workers have zero credibility right now with the rank-and-file based on the unfolding scandal. And I think there are enough workers in the GM auto plant who either have been on strike or come from a family in that sector who have been on strike, or who are raised by parents or grandparents who have been on strike in the auto sector in some of those communities, that those workers are ingenious enough to try and pull this strike off and win. So yes, it’s flat wrong in my view that the workers were not involved in the contract campaign leading up to the strike, but it doesn’t mean they can’t succeed and win based on muscle memory that’s baked into most autoworkers in this country. They’re smart. They have family traditions. Those things get handed down through the family.
Also, they’re being buoyed. You’ve got New York Times columnists cheering them on; you’ve got the political elite cheering them on. And frighteningly, you can even see the idiotic, anti-union, anti-worker, anti–working class, racist White House trying to help them. It’s a pretty strategic moment, quite frankly, in a very strategic sector.
Under, let’s say, more ideal circumstances, you talk about the need for a supermajority participation to win. Can you talk a little bit about the work that’s involved in getting a supermajority of workers united for a cause, and explain the idea behind structure testing?
If you look at the Los Angeles teachers, they’re an example of what an excellent contract and strike preparation looks like. When you’re organizing toward a strike the way I was taught and the way I practice, and certainly the way we saw play out in Los Angeles and Chicago, you’re going into contract talks if you’re a trade unionist committed to rank-and-file involvement, to small-“d” democracy, you’re going to elect large committees, you’re going to elect a large contract action team, meaning workers themselves will elect their own representative, in large numbers, workplace by workplace, shift by shift, unit by unit, school by school if it’s in the education system. You’re going to elect a broad swath of the workforce that represents a broad set of classifications.
You would start off a good year in advance, having lots of conversations, running contract surveys. You’d be making sure that a majority of the workers filled in a contract survey and actually gave their opinion about what they want in the next contract. That’s step one, and you use the responses to then begin looking at where you’re strong and where you’re weak.
For me, the contract survey is the beginning of the structure test in a particular contract fight. It’s the first way to see how much engagement we have across the entire workforce. How many did we get back? Where are they coming from? How many workers are involved? What are their opinions? If you’re serious about building supermajorities, you want even your contract survey to come back from a supermajority of workers, and that doesn’t happen unless you make it happen. You have to construct the contract survey process in a deliberate fashion to engage the majority of workers. Most unions don’t do that. They just put out a survey and whatever comes back comes back. But people who are building toward a strike and understand the method of structure tests use the contract survey as a key structure test. And then you prioritize the areas where you had weak participation, and you’re going to build them strong. And the theory of doing a lot of structure tests is to build equal and supermajority participation across every work site.
So you start with a contract survey a good year in advance, at least, so that you’ve got the time to build where you might have low participation. You want to actively construct and build high participation, so that by the time you might get ready for something like a strike threat, it’s credible, it’s real. The one thing that’s important is no smart employer believes a bullshit strike threat—they see right through them. You don’t bullshit a smart employer about whether or not the workers are ready to strike. A smart employer knows whether or not the workers are ready to strike because they’re seeing the evidence inside the workplaces. Because the structure tests become public, right? You’re building the muscle leading up to a strike. So that’s what highly effective strike preparation looks like.
You’ve talked about the difference between organizing and mobilizing. To put it simply: Organizing is doing the hard work of getting just about everyone on board, even those who oppose the union, whereas mobilizing is merely rallying the people who already agree with you. You said, “I’m going to be going after the people who think they’re either anti-union or they’re undecided.” Do you have an example of people who are maybe even just afraid to participate, or disagree with the concept of organizing in this way, who are then persuaded to come along?
Every single fight I’ve ever been involved in, there’s a whole set of workers who are—first of all, the pressure’s intense with nurses and teachers. They love their students; they love the parents; they love their patients. They really don’t want to go on strike; they are not strike-happy people. They’re mission-driven. They understand they’re going to be causing some distress when they walk out. And so they have to have a vision that what they’re striking for is going to result in something much better for their patients and their students and the parents and the community, which is actually often true. There’s a lot of health care workers, for example, that I have worked with who feel close to their manager, who have a good working relationship, like with their line manager, who feel that this is something very bad to do initially, until they come to realize that there’s absolutely no way to overcome the crisis going on.
A particularly difficult example was Marne Payne, who was a worker leader, who was a tremendous nurse in a unit called telemetry in a hospital called Einstein in Philadelphia. She had a good relationship with her line manager and initially was completely resistant to the idea of forming a union, let alone the subsequent idea of getting ready for a strike vote. But I come from a tradition that says you have to build supermajority participation. We had made the decision that we could technically win the National Labor Relations Board elections without her unit, even though there were 66 nurses in it who weren’t talking to any of the workers who wanted the union. The decision was made to go forward and gamble. I’m like, okay, the numbers are there to win, but all along the conversation with the rest of the workers in the hospital was, “Look, after the victory, the first thing you’re gonna have to do is go recruit all the workers from the departments who were probably voting no.”
Sure enough, the day before the election in that hospital, April 10, in 2016, Marne Payne’s final postings were vote no, vote hell no—the union is the devil. She had been doing that throughout the entire organizing campaign, when many of her fellow nurses, obviously a majority of them, had a very different opinion. We set about the business of like, “Look, if you want to have a credible strike threat, you actually have to now go make breakthroughs in those big departments and recruit them in.” After four months of really sustained, really persistent conversations just in time for the contract campaign to begin, the workers won over Marne Payne. And when Marne came along, she brought 66 nurses from telemetry with her. And she went on, three months later, to lead the strike vote in her hospital. She went from full-on leading the anti-union campaign and then completely flipped and went on to lead the strike vote in their hospital, and they won a tremendous contract.
I have undying faith that most American workers want to fight, want to win, and want to make big change. And that’s part of why, despite the really problematic leadership at the UAW, I’m banking on these workers.
There’s this big climate action planned for tomorrow, globally. And it’s organized in large part by youth activists and students. They’re using the word “strike.” What does it mean that students are using that word?
I think it’s fine for students to call it a strike if, in fact, they’re striking, meaning they’re walking out and causing massive disruption of the educational process. I think it’s great. I had a strike in high school, too, and got suspended for three days. I think it’s a fine use of the word. I’ve been somewhat critical of the use of the word when we use it symbolically, among workers, but there have been massive student strikes, and I think they’re great. And if they’re closing down schools and shuttering facilities, I think that’s a great way for young people to raise the stakes and the debate about the climate crisis.
This last one, I suppose it’s obvious, but I would love to hear it in your words: What is so powerful about the collective withdrawal of labor?
Under capitalism, there really is no more powerful weapon for ordinary workers than if they can collectively walk off the job and interfere with the only thing the employer cares about. Which is not about their workers. It’s about making money. So, though many forms of protest are a good idea in general—I embrace a lot of forms of protest; I happily take part in lots of marches and protests for my entire life—but under the capitalist system, the employer cares really about only one thing, which is that workers show up, go to work, and continue making a profit for their employer. So when workers interrupt that process by having strikes at the level where either production ceases, in the case of a factory, like the UAW, or in the case of a hospital, where the employer has to replace a bunch of expensive workers to the tune of all of them and carry a double payroll when it’s done well in a health care strike, or in the case of the education sector, where every single educator walks off the job, hopefully, with teachers and bus drivers and cooks and everybody, and that causes an actual rupture in what we think of as the production process, even if the production is a service—all of those things directly create the kind of crisis that actually can force an employer to the negotiating table.
And that’s what this is about. This is about workers having the power to do something that yields results much faster than waiting for the 2020 presidential election. Workers can force a decision from an employer a hell of a lot more quickly about whether they’re gonna get $15, $20, or $29 if they can actually organize themselves into a massive supermajority structure and walk off the job. I’ve never seen a more effective way for workers to get results for themselves, their families, their communities than by a united coming-off-the-job.
Do you feel like we’re seeing a snowball effect? There was the start of this in Chicago in 2012, then 2018 struck and a litany of others have followed.
Absolutely. And again I think it’s because we’ve seen a series of well-thought-out, well-planned, really smart strikes, and people are winning. And when you’re at a level of misery that workers are at, and they begin to see, “Hey, these people just won. Why don’t we try that?”
As opposed to “Hey, let’s line up behind a compromised half-sold-out Democratic Party official who’s been promising us since 1947 that they’re going to do something for us.” And that’s how long the Democrats have been promising the American worker that they would fix broken labor law: 1947. The Democratic Party has literally been paying lip service that they would fix the broken labor laws since 1947, and ain’t a one president done it. Not one, Democrat or Republican. No one has, even when they had a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, from Jimmy Carter forward, not one of them fixed the problem. Not Jimmy Carter, not Bill Clinton, not Barack Obama. So hey, why not walk off the job and try to fix your own problem yourself?
Yeah. Otherwise you’re waiting forever, I guess.
Workers have lived and died in the generation that the Democratic Party’s been promising relief. And they haven’t seen it yet.