September 28th, 2023
In 2019, I went on strike for the first time when working as a graduate instructor. I wanted dental insurance; I wanted to earn more than just $30,000; but most of all, I wanted a workplace where I wasn’t treated like shit. On the picket line, I found that we had all come out for the same reasons—to win better pay, benefits, and harassment protections—but as the strike went on and our employer’s threats of retaliation intensified, something changed. We had walked off the job for practical reasons, but now stayed on the line for more ineffable ones. Marching together brought us into community in a workplace built upon isolation; blocking deliveries to the university made us feel powerful in a context premised upon the loss of our agency. When the strike ended after 29 days, I was furious. We had not won dental insurance or raises, but even worse, the strike had ended. The workplace would no longer be the site of solidarity and power it had briefly become. Work had returned.
I suppressed my gnawing feeling of loss at the end of that strike, translating it into a much more “rational” disappointment that we hadn’t effectively used the strike to gain “wins.” And the wins matter. But, while editing Erik Baker’s powerful new essay on revaluing the strike, I realized that the feeling of freedom that the strike created matters, too. “Strikes change people,” Baker writes. “They allow workers to experience, at least temporarily, a total overturning of the normal order of the workplace, a space unburdened by the countless ordinary coercions built into the structure of the capitalist labor process.”
The feeling of liberation that striking creates, Baker argues, holds tremendous promise. It seeds the terrain for continued worker militancy on the shop floor even after the strike ends; crucially, it also broadens unions’ horizons. Instead of letting unions serve only as instruments of contract bargaining, striking pushes them to become “engines of political transformation in the workplace.” Yet in the United States, decades of anti-strike policy, championed by bosses and implemented by employer-aligned union leaders, have convinced many workers that striking is not a worldmaking tool, but a bargaining chip.
Even as today’s labor movement moves toward greater union militancy than we have seen in decades—evident in the ongoing United Auto Workers strike—union leaders have not yet fully embraced an ambitious vision of the strike, sometimes still maintaining that striking is a “necessary evil.” In gripping, lyrical prose, Baker refutes this notion, arguing that true workplace democracy isn’t about making the right deal with the boss, but about refusing the power of the boss altogether. We invite you to read his powerful piece, the beginning of which is included below.
In the end, the strike of the summer never materialized. The 340,000 UPS workers represented by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters could have eclipsed even the star-studded Hollywood picket lines and the presidentially sanctioned United Auto Workers (UAW) strike if they had walked off the job, bringing an increasingly delivery-dependent American economy to a grinding halt. This prospect seemed all but inevitable when negotiations between the Teamsters and UPS broke down in early July––to the elation of labor radicals and the despair of just about everyone else, including the Biden White House and its allies. (Vox fretted that “a UPS strike would be worse than you think,” while Bloomberg speculated about the possibility that Biden might invoke rarely utilized presidential powers to crush the hypothetical strike.) But in a dramatic reversal, Teamsters leadership assented to a tentative agreement just a few weeks later, with days to go before the union’s August 1st strike deadline. Members overwhelmingly ratified the contract in late August, and UPS workers remained on the job.
Centrist and left-liberal commentators alike rejoiced at the outcome. Politico praised the deal for “sparing Biden another economic disaster.” CNN expressed relief that “the threat of a crippling strike” had lifted. Biden himself congratulated the company and the union for negotiating “a better deal for workers that will also add to our economic momentum.” And writing for MSNBC, the labor journalist Hamilton Nolan celebrated the Teamsters’ “spectacular nonstrike” as “a testament to the ideal of labor peace through labor strength.” “A union’s ideal victory comes not by winning a hard strike, but by pushing a company into backing down without ever having to strike at all,” Nolan wrote. He is not the only one to treat the episode as proof that one of the benefits of robust union power is an economy less frequently disrupted by strikes. For newly minted Teamsters president Sean O’Brien, too, “a strong settlement reached without a strike was [the] preferred outcome,” according to labor sociologist Barry Eidlin. “The rank-and-file Teamsters I have spoken to over the past year understood this,” Eidlin wrote in Jacobin after the tentative agreement was reached, “and none were expecting a strike, even after negotiations broke down.”
O’Brien is hardly an outlier in the American labor movement. “This is not a strike-happy union,” insisted SAG-AFTRA lead negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland earlier this year. “This is a union that views strikes as a last resort but we’re not afraid to do them when that is what it takes to make sure our members receive a fair contract.” UAW leaders took a similar line in the run-up to that union’s strike deadline in its contract fight with the Big Three auto manufacturers. “Our goal is not to strike. Our goal is to bargain a fair contract,” said UAW’s president Shawn Fain, and as contract negotiations wore on without resolution, union organizers at auto plants around the country could be seen sporting buttons that read “I don’t want to strike, but I will.” This rhetoric signals to workers that union leaders understand the risk of economic hardship entailed in the decision to go on strike; it is also calculated to maintain the goodwill of consumers and politicians likely to be frustrated by the consequences of a protracted work stoppage. But the Teamsters’ recent choices suggest this is not just talk. Even after building an extremely credible strike threat—credible enough to entice UPS back to the bargaining table as the deadline grew near—the union’s leaders ultimately preferred the certainty of a good deal without a strike over the chancier possibility of a great deal won on the picket line.
In the labor press, much of the debate about the Teamsters contract has revolved around this trade-off. How good was the deal, exactly, and how much better could it have been if UPS workers had gone on strike? It’s hard to be sure. There were real wins: The new contract provides raises for all UPS union workers; restricts the company’s ability to mandate overtime work; guarantees air conditioning in new vehicles and a program to retrofit older trucks with fans and air induction vents; and moves to close the gap in wages and benefits between UPS’s full-time and part-time workers, including the creation of 7,500 new full-time union positions and the elimination of a classification system introduced in the last contract that kept some workers paid at part-time rates no matter how many hours they worked in reality. On the other hand, the new floor for part-time workers’ wages, set at $21 per hour, lags well behind the $25 per hour demanded by the reform caucus Teamsters for a Democratic Union (which enjoys particular strength among part-timers, whose interests O’Brien’s predecessor James P. Hoffa habitually disregarded). Furthermore, coming as it did amidst an apocalyptically hot summer, the fact that the agreement guarantees air conditioning only in new vehicles, and only starting in 2024, has drawn the ire of drivers, who are skeptical that fans and induction vents will really be able to keep them cool during the extreme temperatures poised to become our new normal. In addition to concerns about wins left on the table, there is also the question of optics. Allowing an employer to avert a strike can appear cowardly to workers dissatisfied with the deal: If UPS was that scared when all we had done was threaten a strike, the argument goes, imagine what we could have won if the strike actually got underway.
These critiques deserve to be taken seriously, and O’Brien will have to grapple with the limitations they highlight during the next round of UPS contract negotiations. But even those who have questioned O’Brien’s decision to avert a strike have rarely challenged his underlying logic—that strikes are, at best, a necessary evil, a tool whose sole purpose is to extract better collective bargaining agreements from employers. Yet historically, strikes have not simply been instruments for negotiating better compensation packages. Rather, in periods of militancy, striking has served as a way to refuse managers’ absolute authority over the labor process, enabling unions to serve as engines of political transformation in the workplace. In recent months, reformers like O’Brien and Fain have invoked this latter vision of what unions are for. “It’s the Teamsters who actually run this company,” O’Brien said in July. UAW’s Fain has expressed a similar sentiment, recently declaring that his union was fighting for a world where “no one forces others to perform endless, backbreaking work just to feed their families or put a roof over their heads.”
Despite their ambitious understanding of unionism, however, these leaders—like many in the reform movements that helped elect them—still retain an instrumental view of the union’s most powerful tool, treating strikes as a last-resort negotiating tactic rather than as the creation of a space, however evanescent, where the bosses cannot compel work. But strikes challenge capitalists’ unilateral decision-making power—their authority to decide the who, what, when, and where of work. In doing so, they not only allow workers to confront existing structures of governance in the workplace, but also call into question the balance of class power in society as a whole. To create a world where no one is forced to do “backbreaking work,” and to realize the vision of workplace democracy at the heart of today’s union reform movement, labor activists must reclaim this inherently political understanding of striking—not as a necessary evil but as a positive good.