From Verizon to McDonald's, the Worker Strikes Back

Last week workers struck back—and just plain struck—against the squeeze on pay and benefits that has become C-suite occupants’ modus operandi for increasing returns and padding their bonuses.

On Wednesday nearly 40,000 Verizon workers walked off the job in the Northeastern United States, protesting a management contract offer that they say will offshore and outsource jobs, increase their health-care costs and reduce their ability to preserve wages and benefits in future contracts. The following day, the Fight for 15 organized its biggest job action ever, as service-industry workers in 320 U.S. cities picketed and demonstrated for a living wage.

The two strikes are very different: One is the traditional type of work stoppage that once built working-class power and income, but has faltered as the share of union membership in key industries has been gutted over the decades; the other is a more limited alternative that has become a favorite tactic for non-union workers to achieve workplace gains through legislation. But the tale of the two strikes embodies the central challenge of the labor movement. In order to survive, labor must balance the interests of its existing membership in established (and sometimes shrunken) sectors with those of new organizing ventures in sectors previously thought impossible to organize.

The Verizon strike is a big deal because—with diminished union ranks and increased management hostility—strikes have become a rarity as a union bargaining tool. More often than not, unions will take what they can get at the bargaining table and try to spin it in the best possible way. As Cole Stangler notes for The Nation, strikes withheld the labor of just 47,000 workers in 2015. In fact, this year’s Verizon strike is the country’s largest since the same Verizon wireline workers struck back in 2011. When the Communications Workers of America and International Brotherhood of Electric Workers and company executives reached an agreement to end that strike, the new contract primarily protected existing workers. Despite the unions’ best efforts, they couldn’t pressure the company to adopt policies that made organizing any less difficult in Verizon’s growing wireless division.

Now, five years later, the prospect of staving off all concessions seems equally—if not more—daunting. The union’s power has diminished precisely because Verizon has been offshoring its call centers and has invested in its non-union wireless division, while refusing to invest in its Fios service, which, even though it’s much in demand, would employ union workers.

And yet, this year’s strike appears to be a bigger story, winning more coverage than its predecessor five years ago. With the unions publicizing both the $18 million paycheck that Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam took home last year, and the fact that their members are fighting to remain among the region’s few adequately paid blue-collar workers, the strikers’ story has hit a nerve with a public accustomed to tales of corporate greed and income inequality. As well, both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have voiced support for and walked picket lines with the strikers.

The new model strike is a one-day affair—less risky, and shaped by strategic assumptions that take as a given workers’ limited power to impact their employers directly. The current wave of one-day actions began when 200 New York City fast-food workers walked off the job in 2013. Since then, Fight for 15 organizers have used the one-day strike to great effect, laying the groundwork for $15 minimum wage campaigns in places like Seattle and Los Angeles. Workers in other non-unionized workplaces—like contracted cleaners for big box retail stores—have also relied on the technique. Late last month, the Chicago Teachers Union even led a one-day strike to protest proposed funding cuts for the city’s public schools. That seemed to just be a warning shot, though, as the union is now threatening a full-throated strike next month.

What one-day strikes can do very well is publicize injustices and grievances, which in turn can bring pressure on elected officials or voters to remedy those injustices through legislation or ballot measures. Last week’s widespread Fight for 15 walk-offs come on the heels of tremendous legislative victories in California and New York, which both enacted $15 minimum wage laws. What one-day strikes have not done is bring private-sector employers such as McDonald's to the bargaining table. Unlike traditional strikes, they don’t hurt employers directly, though they can nonetheless yield wins for workers across the board. Unlike the traditional strikes of the period from the mid-1930s through the mid-1970s, they can’t pressure businesses to let their workers unionize. Problem is, since the mid-1970s, traditional strikes can’t do that, either.

A one-day strike can build public and member support for a forthcoming traditional strike, though, as with the Chicago teachers, it’s likely to be more effective when the employers are public officials, inherently more subject to the demands of public opinion than their private sector counterparts.

At Verizon, it was never the case that a one-day strike would have any effect on the company. Workers are now hoping that a real strike can still do the trick.

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