Why don’t strikes achieve more?

Marianne Garneau describes the limited effectiveness of strikes under the National Labor Relations Board system.

Last week social media and the labor press were filled with triumphant celebration of the strike at Stop & Shop, which saw some 31,000 workers off the job, and then of its resolution with a new collective agreement.

There has been considerable excitement on the left lately about strikes in general, especially since, for a long time, that tactic lay somewhat dormant. With strikes on the uptick, the left is primed to view this as a hopeful turnaround, signaling labor’s re-consolidation of its power.

However, there is sometimes a troubling news cycle in all of this. Basically: a union goes out on strike, it all looks very exciting, the left cheers the worker militancy, then notice of a settlement comes down, the union writes a press release declaring victory, and the left affirms the power of labor. 

If you read the content of the collective bargaining agreements, though, there is often less reason to be enthusiastic. In three strikes that were settled in the past few weeks—Stop & Shop, the Saskatoon Co-op, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra—all of the contracts involved the introduction of a two-tier system. This is one of the worst moves a union can make. 

What are two-tier contracts and why are they a problem?

A two-tier system stipulates different employment terms for future employees than for current employees, or for full-timers versus part-timers, etc. In the case of the Saskatoon Co-op, new employees will top out at a lower wage, and will take longer to reach that maximum wage. In the case of Stop & Shop, new part-timers (the majority of the workforce is part-time) lose out on time-and-a-half pay, and get lower pension contributions. In the case of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, future hires are losing guaranteed pensions in favor of riskier defined-contribution plans.

Two-tier contracts divide the workforce, pitting different groups of workers against each other. Existing employees or senior employees take a superior deal for themselves, and in so doing, burn future hires or those less senior. This is toxic to worker solidarity and undermines the overall power of workers—ensuring they’ll be weaker for future job actions like strikes.

When a union signs a two-tier contract, it signals to the workforce that what they really are is a craft union for the high-seniority, full-time staff, with everyone else invited to fight for one of those spots, if they remain accessible at all.

Two-tier contracts are a short-sighted move by the union and a long-game strategic move by the boss. They allow a union to settle a strike with their existing members keeping what they have (and maybe making a few gains elsewhere), while selling out future workers. Employers get to look forward to lower employment costs down the road, not to mention a divided workforce.

Unions are also in effect selling out their future selves. The upper tier of workers whose interests they serve better shrinks over time, as those workers retire or leave. The workers who remain are less powerful. That means the union is less powerful. It may still have membership numbers and dues income, but its workforce is more vulnerable, and the union is bargaining from a weaker position going forward.

Acknowledging that unions are signing two-tier or rollback contracts is demoralizing. It is especially so at a time when labor is supposed to be in a strong bargaining position because of a decent economy with low unemployment. If strikes are the best tactic labor has, and the economic circumstances are in our favor, why are unions signing crappy contracts?

Why don’t strikes achieve more?

There are a number of factors that contain how effective strikes can be, and impel unions to settle them. For one thing, they are expensive. If a union is providing even minimal strike pay, it needs a war chest of millions of dollars to be able to support even a few hundred workers. Strikes drain union coffers, and they take a financial, physical, and emotional toll on workers as well, who aren’t usually earning as much in strike pay as they would on the job, while getting yelled at or hit by cars or freezing on the picket line.

Quite often, strikes don’t succeed in completely shutting down a business, not least because employers can legally hire scabs. The product may suffer, and employers may take a hit, but they can hobble along (while draining the union’s bank account). (A note on the alleged $100 million loss suffered by Stop & Shop during the recent strike, which leftists also celebrated: that figure was put out by the employer, and is more than double an estimate put forward by an industry analyst. We should always remain skeptical about boss communications. In this case, they may be crying poverty to get workers to sign the proposed collective agreement.)

Sometimes strikes end because of government intervention, as when workers are legislated back to work, or fired en masse. Less dramatically, the government can intervene to bring about some kind of settlement in the form of binding arbitration.

Sometimes employers even goad unions into striking, knowing what a heavy toll strikes take. If an employer knows they can weather a strike much better than the union, they are perfectly incentivized to provoke one and starve the union out.

The bottom line is that strikes, under the current labor relations system, are not the slam-dunk tactic the left takes them to be. Strikes can only take place when the contract has expired, and once the membership has been balloted. This means that the employer has years to prepare, knowing when the contract is set to expire. They probably even know roughly how long the strike can last. They’ve also seen strikes before, and aren’t bowled over by them. There is no element of surprise. They know the union won’t do anything too drastic like occupy the workplace or chain the doors shut. They hire scabs, they manage public relations (often by crying poverty or publicly claiming the union won’t come to the table), and they wait it out.

Of course we in left labor circles sympathize with strikers and see their cause as morally and politically righteous. But sympathy is one matter, and clear-eyed analysis is another. That we wish workers victory does not mean we suspend judgement about the effectiveness of their tactics. Nor is any of this meant to judge or condemn unions for choosing the tactics that they do. Instead, it is about zooming out and understanding what factors are constraining the situation in general.

When leftists picture strikes, they are probably in part remembering black-and-white images of workers in the 1910s and 1920s streaming out of factories and mines and violently clashing with Pinkerton guards. But strikes have been tamed by the labor relations framework established by the Wagner Act (the National Labor Relations Act) of 1935 and the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. Those legislative measures were passed in response to massive upheaval, in which workers shut down production with strikes, or employers shut down production with lockouts. The goal of the Wagner Act is right there in its full title: “to diminish the causes of labor disputes burdening or obstructing interstate and foreign commerce.” The NLRA forced employers to sit down and bargain with workers, not out of a desire to strengthen workers as a class, but to funnel disputes between workers and bosses into a less disruptive process – in boardrooms and away from the shopfloor — so that economic production could continue. Taft-Hartley further contained strikes in numerous ways, again in response to creative and effective forms of economic disruption, by outlawing sympathy strikes, political strikes, “wildcat” strikes taken without the authorization of union leadership, secondary picketing and boycotts, and so on.

Under this legal framework, strikes are a blunted tactic, quite intentionally so. They do accomplish something – in each of the three cases described above, workers would almost certainly have got a worse deal had they not struck. There are also strikes that yield apparently better deals, such as the contract bargained by Unite Here with Marriott hotels – arguably in part because contracts at seven different bargaining units expired simultaneously, allowing almost 8,000 workers to strike at once. But strikes don’t change the big-picture balance of power between employers and workers. Most of the time, strikes are like a fistfight in which one side gets a bloody nose, the other gets a black eye, and each walks away saying “You shoulda seen the other guy.” At best, a win looks like giving the other side two wounds while you only suffer one.

Where do we go from here?

Strikes can nonetheless be powerful, of course: it remains the case that withholding production is the greatest tool workers have.

Strikes are most effective when they contain an element of surprise, when the employer does not see them coming, or when they skirt the framework described above. Quickie strikes and sit-downs can resolve a problem before things even escalate to appealing to the labor relations infrastructure (grievances, lawyers, arbitration). Fairly spontaneous, mass strikes do frighten and intimidate employers and tilt things in workers’ favor.

It’s important for us on the left to maintain our ability to accurately analyze and assess strikes and their resolutions. If you were to look at union press releases following strikes, you would never know they were incorporating two-tiers or other losses. Unions tend to minimize the damage, so as not to demoralize workers or shake their faith in the union. However, if we keep calling losses (or pyrrhic victories) wins, we may lose the ability to discern wins and losses, and the difference. And we will lose sight of what makes a strike effective.

This post is part of our series “Reconsidering the Strike.”