How To Win A Long-Term Strike




M

achinist Local 1546 and Teamster Local 78
recently scored a rare major victory by winning a contract after
a 10-month strike at a Honda dealership in Berkeley, California.
The refusal of the new owners to retain many of the higher paid
long-term workers, including the union steward with 31 years of
seniority, precipitated the strike. The other workers walked out
in solidarity. They also feared that they would be fired after training
younger and less experienced replacements who were hired at less
than half the pay. 








The
new owners immediately dropped the union’s pension plan and
downgraded the health insurance. Particularly important was Berkeley
Honda’s unwillingness to negotiate in good faith on these draconian
changes or anything else. The dealership was committed to busting
the union, although management continually denied it. Many months
after the strike began the company applied to the NLRB for a decertification
election. 


Machinist local 1546, which represented the vast majority of the
striking workers, is small, down from a peak of around 6,000 to
1,600 currently. The union’s resources are very limited, but
it was able to sustain a small picket line on a daily basis. Understandably,
the union leadership and the striking workers assumed that losing
the strike was the most likely outcome. Winning a long-term strike
was a most unusual event for a local—or for unions generally. 


What reversed the tide was a highly successful labor and community
coalition that created a partnership between community activists,
strikers, and the union leadership. This approach, which hopefully
the labor movement will adopt in these very difficult times, appreciably
increased the chances of winning. The community organized a boycott,
which reduced Berkeley Honda’s service and repair business
by about 70 percent and also impacted on used and new car sales.
Although many cars that came to Berkeley Honda were turned away
by picketers, a much larger number of Honda owners stayed away from
the dealership due to the well publicized boycott. Because of the
broad support for the boycott, the mayor was persuaded to intervene
on the striker’s behalf. The major owners of the dealership
were land developers, who preferred not to offend the mayor. Also,
the City Council, responding to the demands of the campaign, voted
unanimously to support the boycott. 


How did the Berkeley community get involved in the strike and sustain
its activities for so long? It was a grassroots effort from the
beginning. Community organizers spoke with the strikers, who invited
their participation. Although the union leadership had not attempted
to enlist the assistance of the community, it was responsive to
the interests and preferences of the striking workers. A few of
the key activists were members of the East Bay Labor Committee for
Peace and Justice, which was the first organization to sponsor the
campaign, provide financial aid, publicity, and activist participation. 


To build a broad organizational and activist base, community activists
set up their own organization called the Berkeley Honda Labor and
Community Coalition. From its inception the campaign was seen as
an opportunity to build an organization of labor activists that
would eventually become involved in other labor issues as well. 


To alert the Berkeley and neighboring communities about the strike,
the new organization adopted a wide range of tactics that included
distributing thousands of leaflets and bumper stickers urging the
public to boycott Berkeley Honda. The coalition educated the public
about the labor dispute. In front of the dealership a 15-foot inflatable
rat supplied by the union was set up, which caught the daily attention
of thousands of drivers passing by. Also, the local progressive
independent newspaper, the

Planet

, printed letters and wrote
favorable articles about the strike. It did not take long to reach
the vast majority of the community. 








The
most exciting activity of the campaign was the two rallies held
every week for the entire strike which provided continuity and increased
activist participation by allowing more to attend. The Alameda Central
Labor Council played a major role along with the Machinist union
in encouraging unions to participate in these rallies. Other unions,
community organizations, and unaffiliated individuals were encouraged
to attend as well. 


The rallies attracted tremendous attention. Drivers passing by would
honk their horns, which reminded the dealership of the support the
strikers were receiving. Rally participants distributed leaflets,
bumper stickers, and picketed at other times. Participating organizations
were asked to sponsor one of the rallies. ILWU Local 6 went one
step further by conducting their hiring hall once a week in front
of the dealership. The United Food and Commercial Workers Local
870 rallied every week for the duration of the strike. Organizational
sponsorship, including faith-based groups, environmental organizations,
and political parties, mobilized their membership to attend the
rallies. 


A sense of community was created by the street rallies. Snacks and
non-alcoholic beverages were served to create a warm and welcoming
climate. Some of the coalition leaders, including the strikers,
made it a point to speak with every person at each of the rallies.
They were thanked for attending, their ideas were solicited, and
conversations explored how else they could participate. The rule,
however, was to never pressure participants. People enjoyed coming
to the rallies to talk with old and new friends. 


The Berkeley Honda management began to realize that the community,
strikers, and the union leadership were not going away. The decertification
petition was withdrawn and serious negotiations finally began. Although
the negotiated contract is not perfect, the most important demands
were won. All the workers will be offered their jobs back, but to
sustain their jobs business must pick up. A campaign by the coalition
is now being conducted to bring back old customers and to encourage
new ones. The workers retained a defined benefit pension plan as
well as decent health coverage. Berkeley Honda remains a union shop. 


More important than this particular victory is the potential impact
on union organizing activities at other establishments. The organizers
of the labor action at Berkeley Honda have developed a model of
an active labor-community coalition that has the potential of subduing
even the most virulent anti-union employers. Most unions are not
in the habit of working with community activists. But that’s
beginning to change, as many of these unions are realizing the tremendous
advantages of forming such alliances in order to reduce the risk
of contracting and perhaps even disappearing.





Harry
Brill is a labor and community activist. Before retiring he was a
faculty member (sociology) at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.