The UAW grew out of a strike. Prior to 1936, our union organized one worksite at a time, but nothing on the
scale of the gigantic assembly plants that had been growing into company towns since the age of automation. The Flint Sit-Down Strike of 1936-37 changed all of that. In one 44-day strike, the UAW gained the right to sign up 100,000 General Motors workers.
Strikes are powerful for a simple reason: The only thing the boss wants from workers is labor. Withhold that, and the business grinds to a halt. It’s powerful leverage; so powerful in fact, that a credible threat of a strike is often just as potent as a strike itself. The reason is that the boss is in the backroom doing the math on what a strike would cost the business. “A few days before our contract ended, we set a deadline of midnight Sunday to walk if we didn’t have an agreement. When we let management know, it changed everything,” said Glenn Vinson, president of UAW Local 1805. He and his members work for Folgers Coffee Company in New Orleans. “You could see it in their faces and hear it in their voices. Suddenly, they were on the phone a lot, responding quickly to us. Numbers started moving. It was like night and day.” Sometimes the employer isn’t interested in improving the terms of an agreement. That employer knows that the laws protecting strikers have been significantly weakened in the past few decades, and he is also counting on public opinion being on his side.
Striking to win
Member support: This is an obvious one but excitement on Day One can fade after a few weeks on the picket line. That’s why locals train members and provide information to them before a potential strike so they know what to expect. Getting ready for a strike once it starts is very difficult, so best advice is to prepare ahead of time. Many members also save up money in the months leading into negotiations as a possible cushion in the event they walk. This kind of preparation and the seriousness with which members take a strike also sends a message to the boss: We’re prepared. Mentally preparing for a marathon versus a sprint is important.
Be strategic, not emotional: Negotiations can be tense. Companies take positions that are sometimes deeply offensive to members who have sacrificed and given up so much to help the company survive. Rumors run wild as deadlines approach. It’s easy in this heightened situation to let emotions take over in the decision-making process. But this is the moment when union leaders and members should be the most clear in their thoughts. Scott McAllister, president of UAW Local 5286 at Freightliner in Gastonia, North Carolina, is a military veteran who thought bargaining would be a pretty straightforward matter. “It’s not as simple as demanding what you want and you get it. In every contract, I’m constantly thinking about the active and retired members and their families. It gets very stressful when all the company wants to do is cut, cut, cut.
“In one bargaining, I honestly wanted to hurt the company by striking because I was getting so angry by how the company was treating us. In fact, I got very frustrated with others on the UAW team when they didn’t support a strike at that time. Looking back, I know the company was pushing all of my buttons and I’m glad cooler heads prevailed.”
Political support: A key factor in the success of the GM Flint Sit-Down Strike was the decision of the newly elected Michigan Gov. Frank Murphy to use the National Guard to bring order to a tense situation rather than eject the strikers. “If I send those soldiers right in on the men,” he said, “there’d be no telling how many would be killed. … The state authorities will not take sides. They are here only to protect the public peace.” Other strikers from the period were not so lucky. In Detroit, the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers of the CIO had organized the American Brass plant. Those workers went on a sit-down strike in April 1937. Five weeks later, the Detroit police evicted them which set in motion a violent confrontation betweenthe workers’ supporters and the police. Community support: This is vital for two reasons: Community support can sustain strikers and keep them strong. Just ask any Local 833 worker who spent 31 days on the line at Kohler Co. in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, last year. The level of support from the community (and union members around the country) strengthened their lines.
Have a winning strategy: Though strikes are powerful weapons, companies have an arsenal at their disposal, such as laws on permanent replacement workers, local judges who grant injunctions against strikers, deep pockets to use against workers in a public relations campaign, and anti-union spite, just to name a few. Go into the situation with your eyes wide open. “Striking is easy to do. Getting back to work is harder. You can’t predict the outcome because workers don’t control all the levers. But you have to be smart going into it,” said John Zimmick, president of UAW Local 174 in Romulus, Michigan. Zimmick’s local is made up of many units, some having as few as 10 members. Working with the bargaining committees of his units, they negotiate about two to three contracts a month. “Almost every strike I’ve ever seen has started with an arrogant management who disrespects workers. But I always tell our members that the decision to strike should be made with a clear head. At the end of the day, we are going to bargain for every penny our members deserve, but we have to make sure our jobs are still there after we ratify our agreement.”
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