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The number of strike threats in the US is on the rise. Under pressure from members to take bolder more direct action in the workplace, unions have responded in recent years with issuing more high-profile threats to strike. Is this tactic part of an effective new strategy that is redirecting unions back to organizing and striking or merely a symbolic pronouncement that cannot be backed up with an actual strike?
Strike threats, when combined with workers’ inquiries that can prepare workers to make successful structure tests, can be an essential weapon for tipping the balance of class power back in the workers’ favor. To do that they need to be credible — to both the workers organizing to strike and to the employer targeted with the strike.
What makes a strike threat credible?
Not all strike threats are credible. For a strike threat to be credible it must fulfill two criteria. First, it must convince the employer not only that the workers are prepared to strike but that the costs of a strike will be higher than making a concession to settle the dispute before the strike happens. Second, to convince the employer, it must also convince a supermajority of workers that a strike will succeed in realizing their objectives and persuade them to get involved.
A credible strike threat, whether it is called as a sick-out or a walkout, is one that is perceived by the employer to likely result in a strike that will be more costly than conceding to the workers’ demands in order to avoid it. The employer must also be convinced that a supermajority of workers has publicly expressed a willingness to participate and are actively preparing to strike.
Using a workers’ inquiry into the relations of production and working conditions can help organizers understand how to connect with and engage other workers in the struggle to reach a supermajority of workers ready to take collective action. As labor educator Dr. Helena Worthen puts it, the “threat” is in the eyes of the employer. So a statement that workers will strike may, technically, be a threat to strike, but a “credible” strike threat is something that is believed in — credited — by the employer.
In short, when a strike threat is credible to the employer it may result in concessions to the workers’ demands. If the workers reject the concessions and strike, either the employer miscalculated the risk or found the risks of a strike to be lower than the costs to avoid it, as in the case of many of the 2018-19 US teacher wildcat strikes. If the workers strike and gain nothing more than the previous offer of con- cessions to end their strike, then their threat was not credible and the strike was defeated.
While it is hard to generalize, understanding what makes a strike threat credible is critical for the fortunes of worker organizing today. Identifying what makes a strike threat credible is certain to offer significant lessons about the resurgence of class struggle in the US and elsewhere, where collective bargaining agreements, law and policy constrict or prevent the use of the strike as a tactical weapon.
Whether a strike threat is credible to the workers depends on several important factors. First, if the workers are unionized and in charge of the strike and have the resources and support to withstand a tough and long fight. Second, as Jane McAlevey argues, whether unionized or not, a supermajority of workers will engage in strike-related action when they are convinced of their power to withstand the risks of striking and to win.
Strike threats: feared and ignored
We know so little about how strike threats are used and when they are credible because they have been mostly either ignored or feared by both employers and unions. Much of the US left and the field of labor studies ignores, does not understand, or outright opposes the use of strike threats as a strategy.
Nevertheless, the cost of an actual strike is central to establishing the credibility of the threat. A 1985 ruling by the Supreme Court of California found that a credible strike threat can alter the balance of power preventing an illegal public sector strike from taking place. “Without the right to strike, or at least a credible strike threat, public employees have little negotiating strength.” The court concluded that a credible strike threat can “equalize” power between workers and employers, raising the costs to employers of not settling and reducing the incidences of strikes.
One of the best analyses of credible strikes that is relevant to strike threats was published in 1950. John Steuben’s little-known book Strike Strategy warned that employers are constantly assessing the credibility of a strike while engaged in preparations to defeat it. Although Steuben is talking about strikes, the same assessment by management is applicable to preparations to strike. Steuben warned:
carefully observe the degree of participation of the rank and file. When management comes to the conclusion that the workers are passive, show lack of interest, and merely “sweat it out,” it is greatly encouraged to initiate back-to-work movements and other steps based on the notion that the workers are not solidly behind the union.
Steuben also precisely captured an analogy between a credible strike threat and an actual strike:
By the same token, active participation on the part of the strikers has just the opposite effect on management. When the employer sees his workers taking active part in the strike and that among them are key people in each department, without whom the plant cannot run, he becomes aware of the strength of the strike. Also, when the workers actively participate in the strike and management observes it, the strikers commit themselves to the union and realize that from then on their future depends almost entirely on the victorious outcome of the battle.
How do workers obtain the necessary power to demonstrate the credibility of their strike threat to the employer and prove it to their fellow workers? And what do they then do with it?
Associational and structural workers’ power
The few existing studies of credible strike threats are impaired by their viewing of unions, workers and employers through the stagnant lens of homo economicus, the idea that humans are rational cost-calculating beings, a fundamental assumption of capitalist economics. An exception to this framing is Adăscăliței and Guga’s study of Romanian Dacia autoworkers’ strike activity in which they define a credible strike threat as one that is credible to the employer based on the record of previous strikes and strike-related activity, as well as the autonomy and credibility of the union.
The credibility of the threat is an outcome of what they describe as
‘labor interest representation,’ which, when unpacked, adds up to establishing whether unions simultaneously achieve effectiveness (unions defend workers’ interests), autonomy (representation is independent from the employer), and legitimacy (the outcomes obtained correspond to the demands of the rank and file).
Adăscăliței and Guga sought to understand why the Dacia auto workers had a higher rate of wage increases relative to other Romanian industrial workers. The reason, they argue, is that the union was able to effectively “calibrate its threats” by increasing the aggressiveness of the mobilization and adversarial and confrontational threats — from protests to slow-downs to short, sudden work stoppages — in the course of the collective bargaining to demonstrate the credibility of the strike threat.
Because the union’s record of previous strike action had established its autonomy and legitimacy, it achieved a high level of associational power which translated into a high level of structural power. This allowed it to use calibrated tactics which translated into potential disruptive power and demonstrated the credibility of their strike threat to management, who then conceded higher wage increases to avoid a costly strike.
Adăscăliței and Guga demonstrate the relationship between Wright’s concepts of the “associational” and “structural” power of workers. Workers situated in strategically placed locations in the plant, company, or the global division of labor — thereby having structural power — can make a compelling threat of disruption to the employer. Associational and structural power have a feedback effect on one another. Solidarity from related sectors and communities outside the workplace increases associational power. Combined with high levels of structural power, a strike threat becomes even more credible to the workers and attracts commitment from previously uncommitted workers. High levels of both types of power threaten to raise the economic and social costs of a potential strike to the employer and result in a higher level of concessions to avoid a more costly strike.
Most interestingly, Adăscăliței and Guga observed that even a failed strike raised the credibility of the next strike threat for the workers. During the next round of struggle the union was able to draw on the experience of the previous failed strike to raise the credibility of the strike threat and achieved their objectives of higher wages and stopping the expansion of contingent labor. They did this by calibrating the intensity of their tactics to take advantage of their structural power, thereby deepening their associational power by bringing in less or uncommitted workers by convincing them of the promise of exercising their structural power.
Disrupting global supply chains
What threatens to raise the costs of a strike to the employer? For this, Perrone offers a third power, what he calls the “disruptive potential” of workers, which is of primary interest here. “Disruptive power,” Perrone demonstrated in his analysis of strike threats and strikes, is “derived from [workers’] position within the hierarchy of the system of economic interdependencies.” Due to their strategic position in an economy characterized by complex interconnections and dependencies, even small numbers of workers can wield great disruptive power by interrupting or withholding critical goods or services across multiple sectors and drawing the state and other political actors into the conflict.
While the costs of striking may be minimal for any particular striker, firm or sector, these complex interconnections and dependencies serve as an effect multiplier on the larger national and even global economy. The greatest impact may not be merely between sectors, but between a single sector and the global system. For this reason, Perrone saw disruptive power as integral to and inseparable from structural power.
Recent work by Moody, Alimahomed-Wilson and Ness and Sowers, Ciccantell and Smith have attempted to apply Perrone’s notion of disruptive power to choke points in the global logistics supply chain. As Sowers et al. explain, “positional power is thought to be greatest when it has disruptive potential beyond the local context of work.”
Today, the global logistics supply chain has become the dominant form of complex interconnections and dependencies. Emerging as a strategy to decompose working-class power during the last cycle of struggle, logistics has in turn become the terrain of class struggle to which workers must adapt their organizational forms, tactics, strategies and objectives in order to recompose their class power.
According to Moody, this new technical composition of capital has concentrated larger numbers of workers “linked together in vulnerable technology-driven supply chains, themselves organized around enormous logistics clusters that concentrate tens and even hundreds of thousands of workers in finite geographical sites.” Industrial, logistics, communications, IT and transport clusters are fixed to discreet geographical locations impairing them from being dismantled and relocated. And as they grow ever bigger and increasingly rely on down- and upstream firms and sectors, they are becoming ever more vulnerable to disruption by workers with high levels of organizational and positional power.
Workers with high levels of positional and disruptive power can press for gains in a single shop or firm without resorting to a strike, extracting concessions from employers to buy labor peace and avoid disruption. However, rather than using their positional and disruptive power for their own particular interests, such workers may use their power as leverage for the working class as a whole.
Workers located in strategically critical choke points in a firm, industry or global commodity chain, on the other hand, can reject becoming a new “aristocracy of labor” by turning their positional power used to achieve gains on the shopfloor into a disruptive power that threatens the very operations of a critical global sector, the relations of production and capitalism itself to the benefit of workers along the entire supply chain. As Olney reminds us, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) has on occasion played this role on behalf of workers down- and upstream along the global logistics supply chain.
Achieving demands without a strike
Analyzing choke points, positional power and disruptive power becomes a critical factor in determining the credibility of a strike threat. Workers with high levels of positional power strategically located at a choke point simultaneously have a high level of threatening disruptive power. According to John T. Dunlop, such workers have “strategic power” because in
any technological process for producing and distributing goods and services, there are some workers who have [a] greater strategic position than others; that is, these workers are able to shut down, to interrupt, or to divert operations more easily than others … The term strategic … is not identical with skill. It means sheer bargaining power by virtue of location and position in the productive process.
Perrone found that workers’ positional power is correlated to wage gains due to this disruptive potential which allows them to achieve their demands without having to strike. As he explained, “groups seem to be able to secure high wages on sheer positional grounds, with little or no necessity to resort to strike action.” In other words, a strike threat succeeds because the workers’ power to disrupt is expected to raise the costs of not conceding, making the threat credible to the employer.
In essence, positional power is positively related to disruptive power . Labor studies scholars and union strategies tend to favor a limited focus on organizational power while rarely addressing positional power, let alone the implications of disruptive power that are integral to it.
What made the Association of Flight Attendants president Sara Nelson’s threat to launch a general strike that ended the federal government shutdown in 2019 so extraordinary is that it was clearly motivated by the objective of using the disruptive power of flight attendants to cripple the US and global economy. The same cannot be said for the 2015 United Steelworkers oil refinery strike that used disruptive power just enough to inconvenience the US economy to extract the demanded concessions while minimizing the contagion of global disruption.
The implications of Perrone’s notion of disruptive power is that it is system changing, even revolutionary. As Womack reminds us:
Well-combined operations, if they included technical stoppages in the right order at the right time, could change the entire structure of power; technically strategic workers could change the legal, moral, and economic rules … Unless the labor movement will use labor’s technical power, its major power now, it will not gain the political power to force its legal changes, which moral appeals will then justify.
The potential power to disrupt the existing global logistics supply chain due to its complex interconnections and dependencies is extremely high. Choke points can create widespread disruption if a single shop or firm produces an input, finished good, or service critical to down- and upstream firms and sectors, or to an entire nation or even the global economy. Specific sectors such as logistics, transport, oil and gas, steel, rare earth mineral mining and processing and IT infrastructure can provide even workers who have low or modest organizational power with sufficient positional and disruptive power to create an “unmanageable supply chain.” However, the effects of such disruptive power will likely be minimal if the global working class is not sufficiently recomposed. Workers elsewhere in the global division of labor must have sufficient organizational and positional power to continue circulating and amplifying the disruption.
Tipping the balance
A discussion of credible strike threats as a strategy must be distinguished from symbolic threats to strike for which little to no preparation is made to actually threaten disruption. Too often, staff-driven unions and poorly organized unions issue formal votes to strike from above, not only with the starting point announced but also its duration. Lacking public displays of commitment from the supermajority of the workers, promises to not disrupt normal operations, lack of willingness to circulate the strike along the supply chain and an adequate strike fund, such strike threats are not credible. Whether issued to placate pressure from below to increase the heat on the employer or because support for a more confrontational stance against employer assaults, such strike threats have the effect of dis-organizing the workers.
Symbolic strike threats with little to no strike preparation such as organizing workers across the entire workplace, gradual tactical escalation to test workers’ strength, expanding commitments to strike and involving workers across all the employer’s worksites or the supply chain, de-fang and defuse the strike as a strategy. When the employer calls their bluff, the strike takes place during its predetermined limited duration, and the strike ends with no gains — or worse, a defeat — the leadership has discredited the strike as a strategic weapon of class struggle.
When that happens, the workers find themselves trapped even tighter in the grip of contract unionism. The union becomes an organization of experts negotiating compromises behind closed doors while policing the contract. In the process, the workers lose the invaluable skill of self-organization to prepare themselves for the next round in the fight.
A way out of the contract unionism trap is to use workers’ inquiries into the relations of production and working conditions to inform organizing that produces a credible strike threat or a powerful strike. Such a credible strike threat would succeed whether the employer recognizes the workers’ strength and capitulates or because they miscalculate and the workers strike, production comes to a halt, the sector or even the global economy is disrupted, and the employer is forced to concede.
When this happens, the credible strike threat tips the balance of power in workers’ favor, uses newly-won gains as a starting point for intensifying the fight and inspires others to circulate the struggle to their own workplaces. At that moment, the strike is restored to its place in the strategic repertoire of working class struggle.
Robert Ovetz, Ph.D. is a precarious university lecturer in Political Science. He is also the author of When Workers Shot Back: Class Conflict from 1877 to 1921 (Brill, 2018 and Haymarket, 2019), and Book Review Editor of the Journal of Labor and Society.