Sunday September 19, 2021

Strike funds

On July 24, more than 600 Frito-Lay workers in Kansas who had been on strike for three weeks finally signed a new union contract. The contract, won at great personal cost for the striking factory workers, came with a modest 4 percent wage increase, and the right to at least one day off per week.

It is absurd that these workers had to undertake a painful strike in order to win those things, and they deserve praise for being willing to fight so hard for their own rights. But after the congratulations, we should also be honest about another thing: The enormous amount of effort invested in the strike resulted in fairly paltry gains. This is sadly common, and it underscores the fact that employers often have a built-in advantage when their workers go on strike–namely, that low-wage workers can't afford to go very long without getting paid. If the labor movement wants to take full advantage of the recent surge in worker militancy, it's time that we build more than a piecemeal solution to this perpetual problem.

The long decline in union density since the 1950s is well known, but the portion of workers who are union members is not the only way to measure the level of latent labor power in America. Strikes themselves are a meaningful metric as well. Having a lot of strikes happening shows that there are many strong, aggressive and confident unions at work. They also create a positive feedback mechanism for organized labor as a whole – strikes get attention, and successful strikes are a tangible demonstration of union power in action. Strikes keep unions in the news, and in the minds of the majority of working people who are not themselves union members. Every time someone sees striking workers win something, it may occur to them that unions have something to offer. In this way, strikes drive new organizing and the expansion of labor power nationwide.

Data going back nearly 50 years shows strike activity in America peaking in 1974, when 1.8 million workers were involved in a work stoppage, and then fell steadily to a low of a mere 25,000 workers in 2017. In the past few years, however, strike activity has rebounded sharply, with more than 400,000 workers participating in 2018 and 2019. (In 2020, major strikes fell again, but that year of Covid-19 is hard to compare to previous ones.)

The pandemic was a galvanizing event for the half or so of the working population who saw, in a very tangible way, that their lives are considered disposable.

Right now, we can look across the country and see some of the upswells of worker anger that have burst forth into strikes: the nurses in Massachusetts, the miners in Alabama, the Spectrum workers in New York whose endless battle drags grimly on. These high-profile strikes, to a large extent, define union power in the public mind. Winning them is important not just for the workers on the picket line, but for the entire labor movement.

Excerpted: ‘Labor Movement: We Need a Big National Strike Fund’

Commondreams.org