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 		 [This year, thousands of teachers, hotel workers, Google
employees, and others walked off the job and won major gains. Which
raises two questions: Why now? And will this continue?]
[https://portside.org/] 

 THE RETURN OF THE STRIKE   [https://portside.org/node/19066] 

 

 Steven Greenhouse 
 January 3, 2019
The American Prospect [https://prospect.org/article/return-strike-0] 

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 _ This year, thousands of teachers, hotel workers, Google employees,
and others walked off the job and won major gains. Which raises two
questions: Why now? And will this continue? _ 

 , 

 

For years, many labor experts seemed ready to write the obituary of
strikes in America. In 2017, the number of major strikes—those
involving more than 1,000 workers—dwindled to just seven in the
private sector. Indeed, over the past decade, there were just 13 major
strikes a year on average. That’s less than one-sixth the average
annual number in the 1980s (83), and less than one-twentieth the
yearly average in the 1970s (288).In 1971 alone, 2.5 million
private-sector workers went on strike, according to the Bureau of
Labor Statistics—that’s 100 times the number, 25,000, who went on
strike in 2017.

But then came 2018 and a startling surge of strikes in both the
private and public sectors. More than 20,000 teachers and other school
employees walked out in West Virginia in February, followed by at
least 20,000 more in Oklahoma. Probably the biggest educators’
strike came in Arizona, where more than 40,000 walked out. There were
smaller, but still large, teacher walkouts in Colorado, Kentucky, and
North Carolina.

This past September, 6,000 hotel workers went on strike against 26
Chicago hotels to demand year-round health coverage for all hotel
workers. In October, 7,700 workers struck 23 Marriott hotels in eight
cities, including Boston, Detroit, Honolulu, and San Francisco. In
November, 15,000 patient-care workers, including radiology
technicians, respiratory therapists, and pharmacy workers, held a
three-day strike against the University of California’s medical
centers in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Irvine, and Davis.
An additional 24,000 union members, including truck drivers,
gardeners, and cooks, struck in sympathy. And in one of the most
startling work stoppages of all, an estimated 20,000 Google workers
walked out on November 1 to protest how the company handled sexual
harassment accusations against top managers. “That was
remarkable,” says labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein, pleased to
see that even the elite workers at one of the world’s more prominent
tech companies recognize the effectiveness of collective worker
action.

Some labor experts say the recent surge of strikes could portend a new
wave of labor activism, as more and more workers see that collective
action can pay off.

Some labor experts say the recent surge of strikes could portend a new
wave of labor activism, as more and more workers see that collective
action can pay off. Others argue that the recent surge is more likely
a one-time blip of militancy that will fade away as organized
labor’s long-term decline continues.

“The underlying factor connecting the various disputes [other than
the Google walkout] is an improving economy in which certain groups
feel left out,” says Jake Rosenfeld, a sociology professor at
Washington University-St. Louis. Teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma,
and Arizona walked out after they grew frustrated and furious that
they hadn’t received an across-the-board pay increase in years even
though the economy was strong and their state legislatures were
handing out big tax breaks to business. Similarly, Marriott’s
workers went on strike after Marriott—which is enjoying record
profits—had offered them a modest raise that barely kept up with
inflation.

“They made us a very bad offer on wages,” says Yolanda Murray, a
kitchen steward in the Marriott-operated Westin Book Cadillac Hotel in
Detroit. “We had to walk. It was a very hard decision. I explained
to my son what I had to do. I had to show him what’s right for
us.” 

STRIKES HAVE BEEN AN important part of American history, playing a
huge and often unappreciated role in lifting workers—whether it’s
the Uprising of the 20,000 female garment workers in 1909 and 1910,
the Lawrence textile strike of 1912, the Flint sit-down strike of 1936
and 1937, or the Memphis Sanitation Strike of 1968. Historians say the
16-week walkout by 175,000 General Motors workers in late 1945 was a
key factor in persuading GM to offer the UAWa series of remarkable
contracts in 1948 and again in 1950 in exchange for years of labor
peace—GM was eager to avoid more such painful work stoppages. In
1950, General Motors and the UAWagreed to a five-year settlement
containing raises that guaranteed a 20 percent increase in real income
over five years while also offering the best pensions and health
coverage in the nation for blue-collar workers. That contract, known
as the Treaty of Detroit, became a model, paving the way toward
building the world’s largest and richest middle class. Other unions
wanted similar provisions in their contracts, and engaged in thousands
of strikes in the 1950s to win them. At that time, when unions were
robust and expanding, many non-union companies rushed to adopt the
provisions of the “treaty” to help them keep out unions.

Labor’s use of its most powerful weapon—strikes—declined
markedly during the 1980s, chiefly because big business deployed a new
counter-strategy. Pummeled by recession and imports, corporate America
increasingly used its own powerful weapon—permanent replacement
workers who often took the jobs of strikers—to defeat one walkout
after another at Greyhound, Phelps-Dodge, International Paper,
the _Chicago Tribune_, and many other companies. It was a sharp
change from the 1950s and 1960s, when companies often used temporary
replacements (“scabs”) to keep their operations running during
strikes, but the strikers would return to their jobs once a settlement
was reached. It was President Ronald Reagan who gave the green light
for corporate America to use permanent replacement workers when he
fired 11,700 air traffic controllers who had engaged in an illegal
strike in 1981. Globalization also helped reduce the frequency of
walkouts because union members recognized that if they used militant
tactics like strikes, that could accelerate management’s decision to
move operations overseas where companies could hire a lower-wage, more
pliant workforce.

The number of major strikes fell to a record low—a mere five—in
2009

The number of major strikes fell to a record low—a mere five—in
2009, a recession year when workers were in an especially weak
position and unemployment soared to 10 percent. But in 2018, after
nine years of economic recovery and with the jobless rate falling
below 4 percent, American workers were in a feistier, fighting mood.

Sharon Block, executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at
Harvard Law School, says labor’s renewed militancy reflects a
broader shift in the zeitgeist. “When there’s a lot of collective
action happening more generally—the Women’s March, immigration
advocates, gun rights—people are thinking more about acting
collectively, which is something that people hadn’t been thinking
about for a long time in this country in a significant way.”

Rebecca Garelli, a seventh-grade math and science teacher in Phoenix
and one of the main organizers of the Arizona strike, says that anger
about Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos helped fuel the
teacher strikes. “They fired up a lot of people,” Garelli said.
“Then you have Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and the women’s
movement, and the growing resistance, especially among
women—remember teaching is over 70 percent women—and all the talk
about arming teachers, and a lot of teachers just got fed up and
angry.”

D. Taylor, the president of Unite Here, the union that conducted the
Chicago and Marriott hotel strikes, voices dismay that walkouts have
grown so rare. “I thought it was important to restore the strike to
the arsenal of the labor movement,” Taylor says. “If you’re in a
fight against powerful forces, why are you taking tactics off the
table?” 

As for why Marriott’s housekeepers, bellhops, and kitchen workers
walked out in eight cities, Taylor said, “The workers we represent
were very frustrated because the industry is doing quite well and the
hotels got an added special Christmas gift with the Trump tax cuts,
but our members more and more couldn’t afford to live in the cities
they’re working in. We thought it was an opportunity to spread the
economic prosperity to our members and their families, and we were
prepared to do whatever it takes—up to and including strikes.”

Taylor has an impressive track record helping run and win strikes from
his years heading Unite Here’s hugely successful 57,000-member local
in Las Vegas, Culinary Workers Local 226. The Culinary won a famous
strike against the Frontier Hotel that began in September 1991 and
lasted six years, four months, and ten days, without a single one of
the 550 Frontier strikers crossing the picket line.

Taylor was tired of seeing companies rack up eye-popping profits and
do multibillion-dollar stock buybacks that enrich shareholders, while
continuing to offer paltry raises to their workers whenever contract
talks took place. “I think that the labor movement needs to be much
bolder and much more willing to take risks to make gains,” Taylor
said. “I don’t know why we’re holding back when we’re at these
low union-density levels.”

WITH UNION STRENGTH AT its lowest point in decades, many of the
strikes this year took place alongside or completely outside
traditional labor-management relations. Aside from the hotel strikes,
says Block, “these other big actions by workers are outside of the
formal structure [of union-management relations], which I think is
really important.” Some of the teacher strikes have been spearheaded
by Facebook groups or an ad hoc coalition of Facebook group leaders
and union leaders. The Google walkout was organized through social
media and an ad hoc group. “Workers are finding ways to act
collectively in a big way on their own,” Block says.

In West Virginia, the two main teachers unions—the affiliates of the
National Education Association and the American Federation of
Teachers—have been weak for decades. They’re not allowed to
bargain collectively, and they often feud with each other, fighting to
recruit members.

Emily Comer, a 28-year-old high school Spanish teacher in Charleston,
was dismayed by the unions’ lack of success; the teachers hadn’t
received raises in years. (In West Virginia, it’s the state
legislature that determines across-the-board raises.) “It felt like
all our union leadership had been doing was lobbying, and we knew that
wasn’t enough,” Comer says.

One of Comer’s friends, Jay O’Neal, an eighth-grade English
teacher in Charleston, created a Facebook group that sought to improve
things for teachers. She helped him administer it, and at first the
group grew slowly. Then, in early 2018, it exploded to more than
20,000 members. Teachers grew angry when the state’s public employee
insurance agency indicated that many teachers would face steep
increases in health-care premiums, on top of the annual increases that
had been inflicted on them year after year. Then on January 10,
Governor Jim Justice—a billionaire coal-mining heir who was West
Virginia’s wealthiest man—announced plans to give teachers raises
of just 1 percent a year over the next five years. That meant annual
raises of $404 for teachers, whose average pay was $45,622; West
Virginia’s teacher pay ranked 48th among the states. “People were
already furious, and that just added to the fire,” Comer says.
“People were saying, ‘When are we going to strike?’” If
inflation averaged 2.5 percent a year for five years, those 1 percent
raises would translate into a loss of real income of more than 7
percent.

“The teachers had enough,” says Dale Lee, president of the West
Virginia Education Association, “the years of broken promises, the
years of seeing their paychecks dwindle, no raises, increases on
health care, the lack of respect for educators. Their frustration
reached the maximum.”

The walkouts began in three southern counties with a proud history of
coal strikes. Katie Endicott, a high school English teacher in
Gilbert, near where the Battle of Blair Mountain took place,
told _The New York Times_, “We come from an area that is known for
[people] standing up for what they believe in. We believe we’re
following in their footsteps.” (In the Battle of Blair Mountain,
10,000 miners battled 3,000 lawmen and strikebreakers in 1921 in what
was the largest uprising since the Civil War.)

Rebecca Garelli (left), an organizer of the Arizona teachers' strike,
says that anger about Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos "fired up a lot of
people." AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

Soon a strike was declared in all of the state’s 55 counties, and
school superintendents across West Virginia closed their districts in
support. More than 10,000 teachers thronged the statehouse, hoisting
#RedforEd signs and wearing red T-shirts. Their action persuaded the
governor to promise a 5 percent raise in 2018, and their tenacity then
helped push that raise through a reluctant, Republican-led
legislature. “It looked like we weren’t going to win. But we
fought our asses off,” Comer says. “Is 5 percent enough?
Absolutely not. … But it’s incredible that we won even a 5 percent
raise. That’s a huge win. But this isn’t over by any means. We
have to keep organizing.”

Alberto Morejon, a 25-year-old history teacher in Stillwater,
Oklahoma, was watching a television report about West Virginia’s
teachers when he had an epiphany: He, too, could start a Facebook
group. He named it “Oklahoma Teacher Walkout—The Time Is Now!”
and within one day, it gained 24,000 members. The state’s 42,000
teachers hadn’t received an across-the-board raise in a decade;
their salaries were among the lowest in the nation, along with
Mississippi and South Dakota. Despite occasional tensions between
them, Morejon’s Facebook group and the Oklahoma Education
Association agreed to call a strike on April 2. They demanded an $800
million increase in school funding and raises of $10,000 for teachers
and $5,000 for support staff.

Oklahoma’s Republican governor, Mary Fallin, prided herself on her
record of slashing taxes. Eager to avoid a walkout, however, she
signed a bill that increased teacher salaries by $6,100 on average and
support staff pay by $1,250 by raising $400 million for education,
chiefly through the state’s first tax increases since 1992. Viewing
those moves as inadequate, thousands of Oklahoma teachers walked out
for nine days, but were unable to claw much more out of the Republican
legislature, which believed it had already been plenty generous to the
teachers. The teachers ended their strike, convinced that the only way
to get the legislature to cough up more money would be to run more
teachers for office and elect more education-friendly lawmakers.

Jumping on the wave, Noah Karvelis, a 23-year-old elementary school
music teacher in a Phoenix suburb, started a Facebook page, Arizona
Educators United, on March 4. By the next day, it had 15,000 members,
ultimately growing to 52,000. To build solidarity and gauge support
for a walkout, Karvelis asked teachers to wear red shirts to school on
March 7. Thousands of teachers wore red that day, angry that
Arizona’s school spending, after factoring in inflation, had plunged
36.6 percent since 2008, the largest drop of any state. Arizona—far
from the nation’s poorest state—nonetheless ranked 49th in
spending per student.

“West Virginia made us believe in ourselves again,” says Joe
Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association.

Those weekly protests expanded, and by April 11, 110,000 teachers and
school staff were participating. Working closely with the statewide
teachers union, Arizona Educators United called a strike for April 26
and demanded an immediate 20 percent pay increase and the restoration
of $1 billion in school funding cuts. “West Virginia made us
believe in ourselves again,” says Joe Thomas, president of the
Arizona Education Association. “We were very good at talking with
the legislature. … We had done everything you’re supposed to do,
but we were ignored.”

Running for re-election, Republican Governor Doug Ducey sought to
prevent a strike by announcing he would give teachers raises totaling
20 percent over three years. The teachers were dubious because
Ducey’s plan didn’t provide for funding to pay for the raises. So
they struck. On April 26, more than 50,000 teachers and supporters
crowded around the state capitol in Phoenix, carrying signs reading,
“I am standing up for your child.” Speakers blasted Twisted
Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It.”

The walkout persuaded Ducey and the legislature to approve $400
million more in school funding, but the teachers felt that fell far
short. They collected 270,000 signatures for an “Invest in Ed”
ballot initiative that would raise $690 million more a year by
increasing income taxes on the richest Arizonans. “We’ve learned
that these legislators will only do so much,” Karvelis
told Jacobin, “and that then you have to take the power into your
own hands.” But the state Supreme Court, infuriating the teachers,
threw the initiative off the ballot, declaring its language too vague.

The teachers are intent on pressuring the legislature to increase
school funding, and if that fails, they might try another ballot
initiative. With the strike over, Karvelis says, “Facebook pages are
great for mobilizing people, but they’re not great for long-term
organizing.” For that, he said, “unions are vital.”

Garelli, the science teacher who helped spearhead the strike,
told _Jacobin_, “Fifty percent of the win here has been that we now
have a strong, organized mass movement. And we’re not going away.
People now have the courage to fight.”

These statewide teacher walkouts won tremendous support from parents
and students, partly because the teachers made clear that they were
fighting not just for themselves, but for their students. The teachers
demanded increases in school funding to reduce class sizes, renovate
dilapidated classrooms, and replace tattered, obsolete textbooks. In
this way, these strikes were part of a new approach to union
bargaining, called “bargaining for the common good.”

“Part of the reason the teachers’ strikes were successful is that
not only do communities hold teachers in respect, but the teachers
were fighting for greater funding for schools,” says Erik Loomis, a
history professor at the University of Rhode Island. “It’s very
difficult to frame these strikers as selfish when they’re trying to
help students and the public.”

It was President Ronald Reagan who gave the green light for corporate
America to use permanent replacement workers when he fired 11,700 air
traffic controllers who had engaged in an illegal strike in 1981.
Here, Reagan speaks about the PATCO strike during a 1981 press
conference.  The White House

ON OCTOBER 3, 1,500 HOTEL workers in Boston—housekeepers, bellhops,
doormen, bartenders—went on strike against seven hotels operated by
Marriott International. It was the first hotel walkout in the modern
history of Boston. Among the hotels struck were the Ritz-Carlton
Boston, the Westin Copley Place, and the Sheraton Boston, all operated
by Marriott, which is the world’s largest hotel company.

The strikers, members of the Unite Here hospitality workers’ union,
voted to walk out for numerous reasons. They were unhappy with the
modest wage increase Marriott was offering, much of which, the union
said, would be eroded by higher out-of-pocket health costs. A number
of strikers feared that robots and other new technologies would wipe
out their jobs, and they wanted some protections in their new
contract. Many housekeepers were demanding sexual assault alarm
buttons in case they were attacked.

The overriding issue was that many workers were struggling to make
ends meet, with many compelled to take a second job. Jissely Paulino,
a 27-year-old mother of four and housekeeper at the Sheraton Boston,
says she sometimes works 70 hours a week, juggling her hotel job with
a job delivering pizza.

“We approached Marriott and said, ‘You’re the dominant player in
Boston. You’re the largest hotel company in the world. The last five
years, you have made enormous profits, record profits,’” says
Brian Lang, president of Unite Here’s Boston local. “As more rich
people have moved into the city, housing prices have increased,
pushing our members further and further out. They have to deal with
crumbling transportation infrastructure. The burden on our members,
who are responsible for the success of these hotels, has grown
exponentially. We would like Marriott, as an industry leader, to help
lead on the issue of dealing with income inequality.”

The strikers got an unexpected boost when the New York Yankees crossed
the picket line to stay at the Ritz-Carlton when they were facing the
Red Sox in the playoffs. “Being able to paint the Yankees as strike
breakers is one of the best P.R. moves possible in New England,” a
hotbed of Yankee hatred, says Loomis, author of the new book _A
History of America in Ten Strikes._

Soon Marriott also faced walkouts in Detroit, San Diego, San
Francisco, San Jose, Oakland, and Hawaii. For several years, Unite
Here’s locals had been preparing themselves for a major walkout,
beefing up their strike funds and aligning contracts in different
cities so they expired at the same time, enabling unions in those
cities to strike simultaneously.

In all the cities where the Marriott workers struck, the workers
adopted the same slogan: “One Job Should Be Enough.”

In all the cities where the Marriott workers struck, the workers
adopted the same slogan: “One Job Should Be Enough.” While
picketing, Christopher Guerra, a burly Marriott worker in San Diego,
wore a bright red shirt emblazoned with that slogan. To support his
family, Guerra, 46, normally works two full-time jobs: from 2:30 p.m.
to 10:30 p.m. each day as a banquet waiter at the Westin San Diego
Gaslamp Quarter, and then from 11 p.m. to 7:30 a.m. doing maintenance
work at the Marriot Vacation Club Pulse.

“Oh, man, working 16 hours, the pain in your body is
unbelievable,” Guerra said. “Your body is asking you to rest, but
you have to continue.” His family often complains they don’t see
him nearly enough. “I miss so many birthdays,” Guerra said.

Strikers say that many passers-by who stop to chat say they
wholeheartedly support the “One Job Should Be Enough” slogan.
“The slogan really resonates with working people,” says Anand
Singh, president of Unite Here’s San Francisco local. “It’s such
a modest demand when you’re talking about a multibillion-dollar
company.”

After more than a month on strike, Roland Laforga, a 26-year-old
housekeeper at the Royal Hawaiian in Honolulu, described the walkout
as both “exhilarating” and “exhausting,” although he noted
that it’s not easy to keep up morale. To sustain the strikers, Unite
Here has given them $300 a week in strike benefits and in some cities,
locals increased that to $400 after several weeks to show Marriott
that the union was digging in, not backing down.

“A lot of people do two or three jobs because the rents are very
high in Hawaii,” Laforga said. “A company as big as Marriott, they
can give back a little more to the workers.”

In Hawaii, some hotel guests complained that the strikers’ day-long
drumming and chanting were ruining their vacations. “You got to do
what you got to do,” Laforga said. “We tell the guests that if you
cross the picket line, you’re going to face these things.” In
Boston, several condo associations representing residents living near
the Ritz-Carlton hotel filed a lawsuit to stop the strikers’
drumming. Lang, president of the Boston local, had a tart response:
“It’s perfectly within the rights of white millionaires to take
legal action to try to silence black and brown working-class
people.”

The strikers have received considerable support from other unions. In
Boston, SEIU’s janitor and security guard local gave Unite Here a
floor of its office building rent-free as a strike headquarters. Lang
said, “If our members go into a Starbucks near a strike line, half
the time the baristas say, ‘Don’t worry. It’s taken care
of.’”

For its part, Marriott argued that its workers were well compensated.
“We are disappointed that Unite Here has chosen to resort to a
strike,” the company said. “Marriott is a competitive employer
that pays significantly above the minimum wage in most markets and
provides generous benefits.”

By early December, the union had reached settlements with Marriott in
all eight cities. The union made impressive strides—housekeepers in
San Diego won raises of 40 percent over four years (to $20 an hour
from $14.25), while hotel workers in Boston will receive a 20 percent
raise over 4 years, a 37 percent increase in pension contributions,
and six weeks of paid maternity leave (and two weeks for spouses).
Marriott agreed to new protections against sexual assault and
harassment, including alarm buttons for housekeepers. Marriott also
agreed to give 165-day advance notice of the introduction of robots
and other new technologies and to train workers whose jobs will be
affected by such technologies. Taylor said the settlements make
“Marriott a leader in the hospitality industry in ensuring that one
job is enough for hotel workers to live on with dignity.”

For Unite Here, such a multi-city strike against one hotel chain is
unusual. The union’s leaders and members recognize that such a
strike applies far more pressure than a walkout in just one city.
“We’ve never done anything quite like this,” says Singh, the San
Francisco leader. “When we stand together and fight together, we
make greater gains as a whole. We hope we’re even stronger next time
around.”

THE STRIKING TEACHERS and hotel workers did indeed make impressive
gains. But will that translate into a lasting surge, or even an
uptick, in strikes?

Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University,
doubts that it will. “I don’t see any major surge in strikes,”
he says. “You just see a lot of high-profile disputes, but not many
in general.”

Hotel workers outside the Westin Copley Place hotel in Boston went on
strike for a living wage, among other concerns. AP Photo/Steven Senne

Nor is Washington University’s Rosenfeld ready to declare a
substantial reversal in the downward trend in strikes. But he can
envision something of an increase. “We know that successful strikes
breed other strikes,” Rosenfeld says. “When the only models around
end in disaster, other unions and workers are going to watch and
think, ‘We’re not taking that chance.’ But when, say, teachers
in Oklahoma see their West Virginia colleagues walking out and winning
substantial pay increases, there is a contagion effect. They start to
believe, ‘Hey, we can do that, too.’”

Lichtenstein, a historian at the University of California, Santa
Barbara, cautions that new teacher strikes might “be a sign of
weakness, not of strength.” He explains that after teachers flexed
their muscles last spring and made electoral gains in numerous states
this fall, they’re pushing for increased education funding from
governors and state legislatures. If lawmakers bend to the teachers’
new strength—and demands—by approving higher education budgets,
that will in theory mean fewer strikes.

When I asked Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education
Association, whether there might be a new statewide teacher strike
this year, he sounded doubtful. The reason is that Governor Justice,
having felt the teachers’ sting earlier this year, said he would
propose another 5 percent pay increase for educators (although the
state’s Republican legislature might not embrace that idea).

There are more teachers’ strikes on tap this school year. On
December 5, 500 teachers went on strike against 15 charter schools in
Chicago, demanding higher pay and smaller class sizes—it was the
first strike by charter school teachers in the nation’s history.
Some North Carolina teachers—after their brief walkout last year won
few concessions—say they might walk out again this year. Seeing the
gains in other states, Louisiana’s teachers are making noises about
going on strike if the state doesn’t deliver substantial increases
in pay and education funding. Los Angeles teachers, buoyed by
teachers’ gains elsewhere, are also threatening to strike. They are
at loggerheads with the school district about how the rapid expansion
of charter schools has undermined traditional schools and their
budgets. Across the country, there’s been a continuing wave of short
fast-food strikes and nurses’ strikes, and hotel workers in Los
Angeles might walk out this winter. In September, 16,000 steelworkers
voted to authorize a strike against United States Steel, but the
company averted a walkout by agreeing to give a 14 percent raise over
four years.

“Unions are finding safe spaces where risks are minimal or finding
ways around the risks through short strikes,” says Ruth Milkman, a
sociology professor at City University of New York.

One factor that might be encouraging strikes is that with the
unemployment rate so low, unions need not worry as much about
permanent replacement workers taking their members’ jobs, because
it’s harder for companies to find such workers. “Unions are
finding safe spaces where risks are minimal or finding ways around the
risks through short strikes,” says Ruth Milkman, a sociology
professor at City University of New York.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers,
predicts increased labor militancy, notwithstanding setbacks like the
Supreme Court’s _Janus_ decision. “I think you’re going to see
more activism,” Weingarten says. “At some places there may be
walkouts; in some places there will be other types of activism. People
are much less afraid nowadays. The feeling is, ‘We won’t just
despair.’ People are taking the risk to make something happen, to
achieve change.”

That certainly was the case at Google. In high tech, a field that
prides itself on its individualism, Google’s workers recognized that
to make a sufficiently big statement and to pressure their gargantuan
company to mend its ways on how it handles sexual harassment, they
could do that far more successfully en masse, with a worldwide
walkout, than as individuals.

“The idea that big collective action breeds more collective action
is important,” says Harvard Law School’s Sharon Block. “But the
fact that union density is so low and we have so few strikes is
troubling in terms of how to have workers continue to use this really
important tool [strikes] to reassert some power in the economy.”

To Block, it was not at all surprising that the first teachers to
strike early this year came from West Virginia counties with a history
of miner militancy. “The teachers there had a muscle memory,”
Block says. “But a consequence of the historical low point in union
density is that more and more people are losing that muscle memory.”

The question labor faces, Block says, is: “Can workers learn about
or build that muscle memory so we see more—and more
effective—collective action?”

When strikes were common, they were a palpable demonstration of
organized labor’s clout, and the sharp decline in strikes has been a
testament to labor’s waning power. This year’s surge of strikes
shows, however, that the reports of labor’s death are greatly
exaggerated. They show that when workers are being badly
mistreated—for instance, when teachers receive no raises for years
while class sizes are rising and the economy is booming—workers will
embrace old-fashioned direct action to make themselves heard and
achieve their demands.

In theory, the success of the recent strikes should breed more
strikes. But that might not happen, partly because many workers have
lost the requisite muscle memory and partly because unions have been
on the defensive for years as corporations, courts, conservative
billionaires, and GOP lawmakers have colluded to cripple labor. This
year’s mad-as-hell strikers have a defiant message for those who
hope that labor unions and worker collective action will vanish from
the earth: Sorry, but we workers—for the sake of fundamental
fairness and to achieve basic gains—continue to need unions and
collective action. And strikes. 

_STEVEN GREENHOUSE was a reporter at The New York Times for 31
years and was its labor and workplace reporter from 1995 to 2014. He
is the author of The Big Squeeze: Tough Time for the American
Worker, and his new book, Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present,
and Future of American Labor, will be published next year. _

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