How to Organize a Strike (and Win)
Strikes are on the rise. Earlier today, Major League Baseball and the players’ union reached a (tentative) agreement for the 2022 season—it only took 99 days of a tense lockout to get there. Meanwhile, over in Minneapolis, teachers are entering their third day on strike in an attempt to secure smaller class sizes and higher wages.
A strike is the most powerful source of direct action workers have, but there are plenty of risks and uncertainties to consider before launching one. A lot that goes into preparing for—and ultimately actually carrying out—a strike. If your union or workplace is considering that course of action, here are some basic reminders and tips to help make it a success.
How strikes work: An overview
Whatever image of strikes you have in your head, know that they are more than symbolic protests or intermittent work stoppages. Often a last resort in the process of bargaining for a better deal, strikes are the mass refusal of employees to work in order to gain concessions from their employer.
The circumstances leading to a strike usually fall into one of two categories: (1) an unfair labor practices strike, such as refusing to recognize employees have formed a union; or (2) an economic strike, when workers are bargaining for better pay and benefits and aren’t able to reach an acceptable agreement during negotiations.
After years of decline, the number of U.S. striking workers is on the rise, hitting record numbers in 2018 even before the life-and-death working conditions of the pandemic leant momentum to the trend of labor unrest. The surge in strikes makes sense: When demand for labor is high (as it was during the pandemic), employers are in a uniquely vulnerable position—giving employees a real shot at successfully demanding better treatment. Pandemic or no, employers should never be able to exercise absolute power. Yet the idea of exercising worker power is understandably daunting.
What does it take to pull off a successful strike? Even if you understand what is involved conceptually, you might still be wondering what a strike looks like in practice—and what it takes to make sure the strikers don’t, well, strike out.
Preparing for a strike
A strike won’t sneak up on you out of nowhere. It takes time and preparation to strike properly, and a proper strike is usually a last resort. There’s a reason wars aren’t started with atomic bombs—striking is a nuclear option, and as with nuclear war, the threat alone is often powerful enough to bring about some sort of compromise.
No, you will not get a random text from your co-worker telling you not to go into work tomorrow and to please pick up some sign-making materials. If you’re part of a union, you and your fellow members will have voted ahead of time on whether or not to strike. Because strikes involve personal and collective sacrifices, many unions require at least a two-thirds majority vote in order to strike.
But before a strike vote even comes to a head, your union’s bargaining committee has likely organized a series of escalations in which you’ve been given a chance to take part—for example, social media campaigns that demonstrate solidarity among the workers.
Remember: The strike is your last-ditch option. Unfortunately, employers do not always enter bargaining in good faith, or prove unwilling to meet even halfway on any of your demands. And keep in mind: Your workplace doesn’t have to be unionized—and you do not have to be a union member—to go on strike.
Can I get fired for striking?
Typically, no. The National Labor Relations Act states that employees have the right to engage in “concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.” Strikes are included as one of those protected “concerted activities.” In other words, according to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), most strikes are protected.
Unfortunately, even if you cannot be lawfully fired, you might still be “replaced.” According to reporting in Vox, this distinction doesn’t really matter from the worker’s point of view:
“The Supreme Court has ruled that companies have a right to hire replacements to keep the business running during the strike. And even when the strike is over, replacement employees have a right to keep their job. All that an employer has to do is guarantee that a striking worker will get first dibs on any job that opens up in the following year. But there’s no guarantee that a position will open up.”
Additionally, certain kinds of strikes are not protected. For example, if your contract has a “no-strike clause” or you’re a government worker (firefighters, for instance, are not allowed to walk off the job in any state).
What other risks do strikes pose?
The most obvious drawback of a strike is the economic sacrifice involved. You won’t receive a paycheck during your strike, and receiving back pay from your employer once the strike is settle is hardly guaranteed, so you’ll need to rely on your savings or find some form of financial assistance (more on that below).
On top of the financial risk, there’s also the chance that you’ve miscalculated your employer’s response. Depending on the skills required for your job, the state of the market, and the callousness of your employer, your boss might be able to easily hire permanent replacement workers. If nothing else, there’s the possibility that morale amongst your coworkers will run out before your employer gives in, and you’ll all return to work empty-handed.
Here’s a non-comprehensive list of questions to help you consider how a strike might play out for you and your co-workers:
- Will withdrawing your labor effectively hurt profits?
- Have you taken measures to make sure no one replaces your labor during the strike (aka “scabbing”)?
- If you can’t hurt profits, do you have ways to exert power? For instance, when teachers go on strike, it’s key to have the support of parents to add pressure the school administration.
- Whatever your industry, is public opinion on your side to add extra pressure to your employers?
- Have you set up a strike fund, donation system, or some other form of financial assistance to help workers during the strike?
If you feel confident about all the above, let’s get into the nitty gritty of the strike itself.
How to ensure your strike is successful
So, you’re going on strike. If you don’t already have a professional negotiator on your side, invest in one now. Next:
Set up a strike fund
You never know how long you’ll be on strike. Market Watch suggests setting aside between three and six months’ worth of expenses as soon as you suspect a strike is coming, but that’s not exactly realistic for most workers who have cause to go on strike in the first place.
Create a GoFundMe, Kickstarter, or some other tool to pool donations in one place. Give workers a way to opt-in (a Google Form would work) for when they need funds, and encourage people to use it as needed—otherwise, financial burnout could spell doom for your strike. Many unions have some sort of loan-based or financial assistance system already in place for this very purpose.
Reach out to friends, colleagues, and your social media network to raise awareness about the strike. Encourage them to sign letters of support and to donate to your strike fund. (I’m hardly pro-Facebook, but there’s no doubt it’s a viable tool for fundraising and petition-signing.)
Organize your team
Workers will need to volunteer for different committee roles in order to ensure everything that needs to be done gets done. In addition to your bargaining committee (which I assume is already in place), you’ll need people to manage the strike fund, public relations, social media campaigns, actions any remote workers can participate in, and picket line captains who can keep the energy up—just to name some examples.
Develop clear messaging
This applies in and out of negotiations, online and in the streets: Focused messaging is key to keeping support for your strike high. Let the lawyers fight over semantics; if you’re making a picket sign, try to boil it down to things anyone can understand, like “fair wages” and “better healthcare.” Welcome to politics.
Research your opponents
Once again: Welcome to politics. Make sure your tactics are hitting specific pressure points. Remember, a strike is so much more than marching in the street; it’s a tool to get concessions at the bargaining table.
Research past strikes
Educate yourself with guidelines and expectations learned from past strikes that did (or didn’t) work out.
Use a protected channel where everyone can communicate
Your employers may cut off your work email and messaging systems, so make sure you have all your coworkers’ contact information before you strike, as well as a distinct channel of communication that is not affiliated with your workplace. Slack, Signal, or WhatsApp are all good options.
Set an out-of-office message
Before you get locked out of your work email, make sure to set an “out of office” alert that bounces back to anyone who reaches out to you. It should include the fact that you’re on strike, an alternative way to reach out, and links to how they can support your strike (e.g. by donating to your strike fund).
Keep up the energy on the picket line
Some tips for maintaining a successful picket line:
- Create a sign-up sheet for rotating three-hour shifts for those willing and able to march on the picket line.
- Make plenty of signs that reflect clearly your demands.
- Bring extra sign-making materials.
- Bring acoustic noise-makers, like drums and shakers. (Anything with an electronic speaker might land you in tricker permit territory.)
- If you’re by a busy street, make a sign that asks cars to honk for your cause. Honks make you stronger.
- Print out lyrics to different call-and-response chants, and pass a list of these chants out to the group.
- Keep cough drops on hand, in case people lose their voices from chanting.
- Prepare for inclement weather.
- Maintain a sustainable pace as you walk around in circles—you don’t want to burn out after the first day.
- Create a strike playlist.
- Wear sneakers.
- Invite your friends and supporters to picket with you.
- Invest in coffee, donuts, and pizza for all the strikers.
You can do it
Strikes work because of solidarity. When workers come together as a united front, they drastically increase their power at the bargaining table. Simply put, there’s power in numbers.