Teamsters Punish Lockout With Rolling Sympathy Strikes
Photo Credit: International Brotherhood of Teamsters
Over the past month, Teamsters in five cities refused work in solidarity with locked-out sanitation workers in Evansville, Indiana. The Evansville labor dispute is the second in three months to feature sympathy strikes against Republic Services. This rare tactic represents a major escalation in the Teamsters' struggle with the company, and it's poised to intensify this week.
As I reported for Working In These Times, Republic Services/ Allied Waste, the second-largest solid waste company in the United States, locked 79 workers out of their jobs six weeks ago. (Under U.S. labor law, when union contracts expire, companies can lock workers out, and either shut down production or bring in replacement workers to do their jobs.) Republic told workers they’d be locked out unless they accepted a “last, best and final“ offer that would eliminate their pensions and replace them with 401(k)s.
Teamsters Local 215 refused the offer, and Republic followed through on the threat. While Republic is only locking workers out in Evansville, the union says the company is proposing to get out of the pension fund in several cities where contracts have expired.
On May 24, locked-out Republic workers traveled to Urbana, Illinois, and started picketing a local Republic facility. In solidarity, members of Teamsters Local 26 refused to work. On May 30, Republic workers in Wayne, Michigan did the same, as did their counterparts in Richmond, California on June 1. Three days later, members of three Teamsters locals in Milpitas, California – some employed by Republic, some hired by other companies to make deliveries to Republic – followed suit. So did members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Ironworkers union hired to build a recycling facility there. On June 8, another 300 Teamsters in Long Beach, California did their own one-day sympathy strike.
A Teamsters source who requested anonymity said he expected the conflict to expand further this week, including "escalations with workers who have expired contracts and a strong possibility of those pickets being extended to other locations."
Maurice Thomas, a Republic diesel mechanic and Teamsters shop steward, says 90% of his co-workers in Long Beach participated in the one-day work stoppage. Despite favorable contract language, Thomas says it wasn’t easy: Management “did everything they could to prevent us from doing it.”
According to Thomas, Republic posted a notice saying that anyone who missed work on Friday would be required to work on Saturday – normally a day off - instead. When workers struck on Friday and didn’t come to work on Saturday, Republic said they would be disciplined. But Thomas saus that the number of workers involved, the contract language, and the pushback from rank-and-file leaders on the property forced management to back down.
Thomas says he welcomed the chance to support co-workers in Evansville because “ultimately, the management is going to back each other up from city to city. We have to be one union, one contrat. If we stick to that, we can have just as much power as corporate America.” Thomas was also glad to send a message to local management, whom he accused of forcing drivers to work unsafe levels of overtime.
Chuck Whobrey, the president of Local 215, says that for the 79 workers in Evansville, facing “the monster of a company, it can be a pretty lonely feeling. And so whenever they’ve extended the picket lines, it has really had a huge impact” on workers to see support from “people they don’t even know. Anytime you can get through to people that they’re in something bigger than themselves, it really does inspire them.”
As for management, Whobrey says, “I wouldn’t say they’re more dug in, but I think that they’re following whatever plan of action they had from Day 1 of negotiations.”
The Teamsters have also reached out to Republic’s shareholders, contrasting the cost of pension payments with a promised death benefit for Republic’s CEO, which they say is worth $23 million. Last month the union protested outside a shareholder meeting and introduced a shareholder resolution that would have given shareholders a vote on death benefits; it failed with 41% of the vote.
Republic did not respond to a request for comment, but in interviews last month, local general manager Mark McKune described the lockout as a response to “threats of war” from the union, and the proposal to replace pensions as motivated by concerns over the pension fund’s solvency.
The Sympathy Strike Strategy
Before the National Labor Relations Act established legal collective bargaining rights within discrete bargaining units, and the Taft-Hartley Amendments banned many solidarity actions, strikes would commonly spread from one group of workers to other worksites in the industry, or to other workers in the supply chain. Today, such solidarity strikes are rare.
The Teamsters’ ability to pull them off rests in part on a “conscience clause” in some of their contracts, which specifies that workers can’t be required to work if it means crossing a picket line. (Other workers who had expired contracts have participated in solidarity strikes this year, and thus weren’t prohibited from striking.) Wherever other Teamsters – even a single one – set up a picket line, workers with a conscience clause have the right the forfeit pay and refuse work.
In March, union officials in Mobile, Alabama, credited such solidarity strikes with a big role in the contract they won at Republic. As I reported for Alternet, workers in Mobile struck for eight days after alleging that Republic was attempting to back out of already agreed-upon provisions in tentative contract agreements. During that strike, workers in three other cities refused work for days at a time.
“I think it’s awesome,” Mobile striker Michael McLean said during the strike. “It shows that the brotherhood is strong, wherever you’re at.”
Reviving the Strike author and In These Times contributor Joe Burns observed at the time that “The Teamsters are relatively rare within the labor movement” because their contracts protect “the ability to honor picket lines.” Burns, a negotiator for the Association of Flight Attendants, said that while there are “plenty of examples within the Teamsters of conservative trade union officials choosing not to honor picket lines,” overall the Teamsters “still have that culture of solidarity within their union that’s been lost by a lot of unions” barred from such actions.
But there are limits to the tactic. While Mobile workers told me during their strike that they’d welcome the chance to show reciprocal solidarity, their contract has no conscience clause, and so they’d be bound by the “No strike” clause of their current contract even if Evansville workers showed up to picket.
“We’ve brought it up,” in negotiations, says Levon “Rooster” Lindsey, a business representative for Mobile-based Teamsters Local 991. "The company’s never even offered to accept that language. But it’s something, looking forward, that we’re looking to get.” Lindsey was interviewed while in Evansville, where he was meeting with locked-out workers to share stories from the Mobile victory.
Barred from striking, workers in Mobile and elsewhere have taken less disruptive acts of solidarity, including wearing stickers that say “Stop Trashing Our Contract.” Lindsey says Mobile workers may do informational pickets at the Mobile facility, in which union members show up early before their shift and demonstrate outside the plant during non-work time.
“The core of the Teamsters is a pension plan,” says Lindsey. “We must fight and we must win.”
Whobrey says that representatives from several Teamsters locals that deal with Republic met on Wednesday to discuss further steps to press the company to end the lockout. Thomas says he’s talked to workers in Gardenia, California, who are “waiting their turn” to mount a work stoppage as well. Meanwhile, Thomas says, co-workers have told him they were energized by the one-day strike: “They said that we should do it once a month.”