The Return of the Strike

For years, many labor experts seemed ready to write the obituary of strikes in America. In 2017, the number of major strikes—those involving more than 1,000 workers—dwindled to just seven in the private sector. Indeed, over the past decade, there were just 13 major strikes a year on average. That’s less than one-sixth the average annual number in the 1980s (83), and less than one-twentieth the yearly average in the 1970s (288).In 1971 alone, 2.5 million private-sector workers went on strike, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics—that’s 100 times the number, 25,000, who went on strike in 2017.

But then came 2018 and a startling surge of strikes in both the private and public sectors. More than 20,000 teachers and other school employees walked out in West Virginia in February, followed by at least 20,000 more in Oklahoma. Probably the biggest educators’ strike came in Arizona, where more than 40,000 walked out. There were smaller, but still large, teacher walkouts in Colorado, Kentucky, and North Carolina.

This past September, 6,000 hotel workers went on strike against 26 Chicago hotels to demand year-round health coverage for all hotel workers. In October, 7,700 workers struck 23 Marriott hotels in eight cities, including Boston, Detroit, Honolulu, and San Francisco. In November, 15,000 patient-care workers, including radiology technicians, respiratory therapists, and pharmacy workers, held a three-day strike against the University of California’s medical centers in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Irvine, and Davis. An additional 24,000 union members, including truck drivers, gardeners, and cooks, struck in sympathy. And in one of the most startling work stoppages of all, an estimated 20,000 Google workers walked out on November 1 to protest how the company handled sexual harassment accusations against top managers. “That was remarkable,” says labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein, pleased to see that even the elite workers at one of the world’s more prominent tech companies recognize the effectiveness of collective worker action.

Some labor experts say the recent surge of strikes could portend a new wave of labor activism, as more and more workers see that collective action can pay off. Others argue that the recent surge is more likely a one-time blip of militancy that will fade away as organized labor’s long-term decline continues.

“The underlying factor connecting the various disputes [other than the Google walkout] is an improving economy in which certain groups feel left out,” says Jake Rosenfeld, a sociology professor at Washington University-St. Louis. Teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona walked out after they grew frustrated and furious that they hadn’t received an across-the-board pay increase in years even though the economy was strong and their state legislatures were handing out big tax breaks to business. Similarly, Marriott’s workers went on strike after Marriott—which is enjoying record profits—had offered them a modest raise that barely kept up with inflation.

“They made us a very bad offer on wages,” says Yolanda Murray, a kitchen steward in the Marriott-operated Westin Book Cadillac Hotel in Detroit. “We had to walk. It was a very hard decision. I explained to my son what I had to do. I had to show him what’s right for us.”


STRIKES HAVE BEEN AN important part of American history, playing a huge and often unappreciated role in lifting workers—whether it’s the Uprising of the 20,000 female garment workers in 1909 and 1910, the Lawrence textile strike of 1912, the Flint sit-down strike of 1936 and 1937, or the Memphis Sanitation Strike of 1968. Historians say the 16-week walkout by 175,000 General Motors workers in late 1945 was a key factor in persuading GM to offer the UAWa series of remarkable contracts in 1948 and again in 1950 in exchange for years of labor peace—GM was eager to avoid more such painful work stoppages. In 1950, General Motors and the UAWagreed to a five-year settlement containing raises that guaranteed a 20 percent increase in real income over five years while also offering the best pensions and health coverage in the nation for blue-collar workers. That contract, known as the Treaty of Detroit, became a model, paving the way toward building the world’s largest and richest middle class. Other unions wanted similar provisions in their contracts, and engaged in thousands of strikes in the 1950s to win them. At that time, when unions were robust and expanding, many non-union companies rushed to adopt the provisions of the “treaty” to help them keep out unions.

Labor’s use of its most powerful weapon—strikes—declined markedly during the 1980s, chiefly because big business deployed a new counter-strategy. Pummeled by recession and imports, corporate America increasingly used its own powerful weapon—permanent replacement workers who often took the jobs of strikers—to defeat one walkout after another at Greyhound, Phelps-Dodge, International Paper, the Chicago Tribune, and many other companies. It was a sharp change from the 1950s and 1960s, when companies often used temporary replacements (“scabs”) to keep their operations running during strikes, but the strikers would return to their jobs once a settlement was reached. It was President Ronald Reagan who gave the green light for corporate America to use permanent replacement workers when he fired 11,700 air traffic controllers who had engaged in an illegal strike in 1981. Globalization also helped reduce the frequency of walkouts because union members recognized that if they used militant tactics like strikes, that could accelerate management’s decision to move operations overseas where companies could hire a lower-wage, more pliant workforce.

The number of major strikes fell to a record low—a mere five—in 2009, a recession year when workers were in an especially weak position and unemployment soared to 10 percent. But in 2018, after nine years of economic recovery and with the jobless rate falling below 4 percent, American workers were in a feistier, fighting mood.

Sharon Block, executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, says labor’s renewed militancy reflects a broader shift in the zeitgeist. “When there’s a lot of collective action happening more generally—the Women’s March, immigration advocates, gun rights—people are thinking more about acting collectively, which is something that people hadn’t been thinking about for a long time in this country in a significant way.”

Rebecca Garelli, a seventh-grade math and science teacher in Phoenix and one of the main organizers of the Arizona strike, says that anger about Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos helped fuel the teacher strikes. “They fired up a lot of people,” Garelli said. “Then you have Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and the women’s movement, and the growing resistance, especially among women—remember teaching is over 70 percent women—and all the talk about arming teachers, and a lot of teachers just got fed up and angry.”

D. Taylor, the president of Unite Here, the union that conducted the Chicago and Marriott hotel strikes, voices dismay that walkouts have grown so rare. “I thought it was important to restore the strike to the arsenal of the labor movement,” Taylor says. “If you’re in a fight against powerful forces, why are you taking tactics off the table?”

As for why Marriott’s housekeepers, bellhops, and kitchen workers walked out in eight cities, Taylor said, “The workers we represent were very frustrated because the industry is doing quite well and the hotels got an added special Christmas gift with the Trump tax cuts, but our members more and more couldn’t afford to live in the cities they’re working in. We thought it was an opportunity to spread the economic prosperity to our members and their families, and we were prepared to do whatever it takes—up to and including strikes.”

Taylor has an impressive track record helping run and win strikes from his years heading Unite Here’s hugely successful 57,000-member local in Las Vegas, Culinary Workers Local 226. The Culinary won a famous strike against the Frontier Hotel that began in September 1991 and lasted six years, four months, and ten days, without a single one of the 550 Frontier strikers crossing the picket line.

Taylor was tired of seeing companies rack up eye-popping profits and do multibillion-dollar stock buybacks that enrich shareholders, while continuing to offer paltry raises to their workers whenever contract talks took place. “I think that the labor movement needs to be much bolder and much more willing to take risks to make gains,” Taylor said. “I don’t know why we’re holding back when we’re at these low union-density levels.”

WITH UNION STRENGTH AT its lowest point in decades, many of the strikes this year took place alongside or completely outside traditional labor-management relations. Aside from the hotel strikes, says Block, “these other big actions by workers are outside of the formal structure [of union-management relations], which I think is really important.” Some of the teacher strikes have been spearheaded by Facebook groups or an ad hoc coalition of Facebook group leaders and union leaders. The Google walkout was organized through social media and an ad hoc group. “Workers are finding ways to act collectively in a big way on their own,” Block says.

In West Virginia, the two main teachers unions—the affiliates of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers—have been weak for decades. They’re not allowed to bargain collectively, and they often feud with each other, fighting to recruit members.

Emily Comer, a 28-year-old high school Spanish teacher in Charleston, was dismayed by the unions’ lack of success; the teachers hadn’t received raises in years. (In West Virginia, it’s the state legislature that determines across-the-board raises.) “It felt like all our union leadership had been doing was lobbying, and we knew that wasn’t enough,” Comer says.

One of Comer’s friends, Jay O’Neal, an eighth-grade English teacher in Charleston, created a Facebook group that sought to improve things for teachers. She helped him administer it, and at first the group grew slowly. Then, in early 2018, it exploded to more than 20,000 members. Teachers grew angry when the state’s public employee insurance agency indicated that many teachers would face steep increases in health-care premiums, on top of the annual increases that had been inflicted on them year after year. Then on January 10, Governor Jim Justice—a billionaire coal-mining heir who was West Virginia’s wealthiest man—announced plans to give teachers raises of just 1 percent a year over the next five years. That meant annual raises of $404 for teachers, whose average pay was $45,622; West Virginia’s teacher pay ranked 48th among the states. “People were already furious, and that just added to the fire,” Comer says. “People were saying, ‘When are we going to strike?’” If inflation averaged 2.5 percent a year for five years, those 1 percent raises would translate into a loss of real income of more than 7 percent.

“The teachers had enough,” says Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, “the years of broken promises, the years of seeing their paychecks dwindle, no raises, increases on health care, the lack of respect for educators. Their frustration reached the maximum.”

The walkouts began in three southern counties with a proud history of coal strikes. Katie Endicott, a high school English teacher in Gilbert, near where the Battle of Blair Mountain took place, told The New York Times, “We come from an area that is known for [people] standing up for what they believe in. We believe we’re following in their footsteps.” (In the Battle of Blair Mountain, 10,000 miners battled 3,000 lawmen and strikebreakers in 1921 in what was the largest uprising since the Civil War.)

Soon a strike was declared in all of the state’s 55 counties, and school superintendents across West Virginia closed their districts in support. More than 10,000 teachers thronged the statehouse, hoisting #RedforEd signs and wearing red T-shirts. Their action persuaded the governor to promise a 5 percent raise in 2018, and their tenacity then helped push that raise through a reluctant, Republican-led legislature. “It looked like we weren’t going to win. But we fought our asses off,” Comer says. “Is 5 percent enough? Absolutely not. … But it’s incredible that we won even a 5 percent raise. That’s a huge win. But this isn’t over by any means. We have to keep organizing.”

Alberto Morejon, a 25-year-old history teacher in Stillwater, Oklahoma, was watching a television report about West Virginia’s teachers when he had an epiphany: He, too, could start a Facebook group. He named it “Oklahoma Teacher Walkout—The Time Is Now!” and within one day, it gained 24,000 members. The state’s 42,000 teachers hadn’t received an across-the-board raise in a decade; their salaries were among the lowest in the nation, along with Mississippi and South Dakota. Despite occasional tensions between them, Morejon’s Facebook group and the Oklahoma Education Association agreed to call a strike on April 2. They demanded an $800 million increase in school funding and raises of $10,000 for teachers and $5,000 for support staff.

Oklahoma’s Republican governor, Mary Fallin, prided herself on her record of slashing taxes. Eager to avoid a walkout, however, she signed a bill that increased teacher salaries by $6,100 on average and support staff pay by $1,250 by raising $400 million for education, chiefly through the state’s first tax increases since 1992. Viewing those moves as inadequate, thousands of Oklahoma teachers walked out for nine days, but were unable to claw much more out of the Republican legislature, which believed it had already been plenty generous to the teachers. The teachers ended their strike, convinced that the only way to get the legislature to cough up more money would be to run more teachers for office and elect more education-friendly lawmakers.

Jumping on the wave, Noah Karvelis, a 23-year-old elementary school music teacher in a Phoenix suburb, started a Facebook page, Arizona Educators United, on March 4. By the next day, it had 15,000 members, ultimately growing to 52,000. To build solidarity and gauge support for a walkout, Karvelis asked teachers to wear red shirts to school on March 7. Thousands of teachers wore red that day, angry that Arizona’s school spending, after factoring in inflation, had plunged 36.6 percent since 2008, the largest drop of any state. Arizona—far from the nation’s poorest state—nonetheless ranked 49th in spending per student.

Those weekly protests expanded, and by April 11, 110,000 teachers and school staff were participating. Working closely with the statewide teachers union, Arizona Educators United called a strike for April 26 and demanded an immediate 20 percent pay increase and the restoration of $1 billion in school funding cuts. “West Virginia made us believe in ourselves again,” says Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association. “We were very good at talking with the legislature. … We had done everything you’re supposed to do, but we were ignored.”

Running for re-election, Republican Governor Doug Ducey sought to prevent a strike by announcing he would give teachers raises totaling 20 percent over three years. The teachers were dubious because Ducey’s plan didn’t provide for funding to pay for the raises. So they struck. On April 26, more than 50,000 teachers and supporters crowded around the state capitol in Phoenix, carrying signs reading, “I am standing up for your child.” Speakers blasted Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It.”

The walkout persuaded Ducey and the legislature to approve $400 million more in school funding, but the teachers felt that fell far short. They collected 270,000 signatures for an “Invest in Ed” ballot initiative that would raise $690 million more a year by increasing income taxes on the richest Arizonans. “We’ve learned that these legislators will only do so much,” Karvelis told Jacobin, “and that then you have to take the power into your own hands.” But the state Supreme Court, infuriating the teachers, threw the initiative off the ballot, declaring its language too vague.

The teachers are intent on pressuring the legislature to increase school funding, and if that fails, they might try another ballot initiative. With the strike over, Karvelis says, “Facebook pages are great for mobilizing people, but they’re not great for long-term organizing.” For that, he said, “unions are vital.”

Garelli, the science teacher who helped spearhead the strike, told Jacobin, “Fifty percent of the win here has been that we now have a strong, organized mass movement. And we’re not going away. People now have the courage to fight.”

These statewide teacher walkouts won tremendous support from parents and students, partly because the teachers made clear that they were fighting not just for themselves, but for their students. The teachers demanded increases in school funding to reduce class sizes, renovate dilapidated classrooms, and replace tattered, obsolete textbooks. In this way, these strikes were part of a new approach to union bargaining, called “bargaining for the common good.”

“Part of the reason the teachers’ strikes were successful is that not only do communities hold teachers in respect, but the teachers were fighting for greater funding for schools,” says Erik Loomis, a history professor at the University of Rhode Island. “It’s very difficult to frame these strikers as selfish when they’re trying to help students and the public.”

ON OCTOBER 3, 1,500 HOTEL workers in Boston—housekeepers, bellhops, doormen, bartenders—went on strike against seven hotels operated by Marriott International. It was the first hotel walkout in the modern history of Boston. Among the hotels struck were the Ritz-Carlton Boston, the Westin Copley Place, and the Sheraton Boston, all operated by Marriott, which is the world’s largest hotel company.

The strikers, members of the Unite Here hospitality workers’ union, voted to walk out for numerous reasons. They were unhappy with the modest wage increase Marriott was offering, much of which, the union said, would be eroded by higher out-of-pocket health costs. A number of strikers feared that robots and other new technologies would wipe out their jobs, and they wanted some protections in their new contract. Many housekeepers were demanding sexual assault alarm buttons in case they were attacked.

The overriding issue was that many workers were struggling to make ends meet, with many compelled to take a second job. Jissely Paulino, a 27-year-old mother of four and housekeeper at the Sheraton Boston, says she sometimes works 70 hours a week, juggling her hotel job with a job delivering pizza.

“We approached Marriott and said, ‘You’re the dominant player in Boston. You’re the largest hotel company in the world. The last five years, you have made enormous profits, record profits,’” says Brian Lang, president of Unite Here’s Boston local. “As more rich people have moved into the city, housing prices have increased, pushing our members further and further out. They have to deal with crumbling transportation infrastructure. The burden on our members, who are responsible for the success of these hotels, has grown exponentially. We would like Marriott, as an industry leader, to help lead on the issue of dealing with income inequality.”

The strikers got an unexpected boost when the New York Yankees crossed the picket line to stay at the Ritz-Carlton when they were facing the Red Sox in the playoffs. “Being able to paint the Yankees as strike breakers is one of the best P.R. moves possible in New England,” a hotbed of Yankee hatred, says Loomis, author of the new book A History of America in Ten Strikes.

Soon Marriott also faced walkouts in Detroit, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, Oakland, and Hawaii. For several years, Unite Here’s locals had been preparing themselves for a major walkout, beefing up their strike funds and aligning contracts in different cities so they expired at the same time, enabling unions in those cities to strike simultaneously.

In all the cities where the Marriott workers struck, the workers adopted the same slogan: “One Job Should Be Enough.” While picketing, Christopher Guerra, a burly Marriott worker in San Diego, wore a bright red shirt emblazoned with that slogan. To support his family, Guerra, 46, normally works two full-time jobs: from 2:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. each day as a banquet waiter at the Westin San Diego Gaslamp Quarter, and then from 11 p.m. to 7:30 a.m. doing maintenance work at the Marriot Vacation Club Pulse.

“Oh, man, working 16 hours, the pain in your body is unbelievable,” Guerra said. “Your body is asking you to rest, but you have to continue.” His family often complains they don’t see him nearly enough. “I miss so many birthdays,” Guerra said.

Strikers say that many passers-by who stop to chat say they wholeheartedly support the “One Job Should Be Enough” slogan. “The slogan really resonates with working people,” says Anand Singh, president of Unite Here’s San Francisco local. “It’s such a modest demand when you’re talking about a multibillion-dollar company.”

After more than a month on strike, Roland Laforga, a 26-year-old housekeeper at the Royal Hawaiian in Honolulu, described the walkout as both “exhilarating” and “exhausting,” although he noted that it’s not easy to keep up morale. To sustain the strikers, Unite Here has given them $300 a week in strike benefits and in some cities, locals increased that to $400 after several weeks to show Marriott that the union was digging in, not backing down.

“A lot of people do two or three jobs because the rents are very high in Hawaii,” Laforga said. “A company as big as Marriott, they can give back a little more to the workers.”

In Hawaii, some hotel guests complained that the strikers’ day-long drumming and chanting were ruining their vacations. “You got to do what you got to do,” Laforga said. “We tell the guests that if you cross the picket line, you’re going to face these things.” In Boston, several condo associations representing residents living near the Ritz-Carlton hotel filed a lawsuit to stop the strikers’ drumming. Lang, president of the Boston local, had a tart response: “It’s perfectly within the rights of white millionaires to take legal action to try to silence black and brown working-class people.”

The strikers have received considerable support from other unions. In Boston, SEIU’s janitor and security guard local gave Unite Here a floor of its office building rent-free as a strike headquarters. Lang said, “If our members go into a Starbucks near a strike line, half the time the baristas say, ‘Don’t worry. It’s taken care of.’”

For its part, Marriott argued that its workers were well compensated. “We are disappointed that Unite Here has chosen to resort to a strike,” the company said. “Marriott is a competitive employer that pays significantly above the minimum wage in most markets and provides generous benefits.”

By early December, the union had reached settlements with Marriott in all eight cities. The union made impressive strides—housekeepers in San Diego won raises of 40 percent over four years (to $20 an hour from $14.25), while hotel workers in Boston will receive a 20 percent raise over 4 years, a 37 percent increase in pension contributions, and six weeks of paid maternity leave (and two weeks for spouses). Marriott agreed to new protections against sexual assault and harassment, including alarm buttons for housekeepers. Marriott also agreed to give 165-day advance notice of the introduction of robots and other new technologies and to train workers whose jobs will be affected by such technologies. Taylor said the settlements make “Marriott a leader in the hospitality industry in ensuring that one job is enough for hotel workers to live on with dignity.”

For Unite Here, such a multi-city strike against one hotel chain is unusual. The union’s leaders and members recognize that such a strike applies far more pressure than a walkout in just one city. “We’ve never done anything quite like this,” says Singh, the San Francisco leader. “When we stand together and fight together, we make greater gains as a whole. We hope we’re even stronger next time around.”


THE STRIKING TEACHERS and hotel workers did indeed make impressive gains. But will that translate into a lasting surge, or even an uptick, in strikes?

Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University, doubts that it will. “I don’t see any major surge in strikes,” he says. “You just see a lot of high-profile disputes, but not many in general.”

Nor is Washington University’s Rosenfeld ready to declare a substantial reversal in the downward trend in strikes. But he can envision something of an increase. “We know that successful strikes breed other strikes,” Rosenfeld says. “When the only models around end in disaster, other unions and workers are going to watch and think, ‘We’re not taking that chance.’ But when, say, teachers in Oklahoma see their West Virginia colleagues walking out and winning substantial pay increases, there is a contagion effect. They start to believe, ‘Hey, we can do that, too.’”

Lichtenstein, a historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara, cautions that new teacher strikes might “be a sign of weakness, not of strength.” He explains that after teachers flexed their muscles last spring and made electoral gains in numerous states this fall, they’re pushing for increased education funding from governors and state legislatures. If lawmakers bend to the teachers’ new strength—and demands—by approving higher education budgets, that will in theory mean fewer strikes.

When I asked Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, whether there might be a new statewide teacher strike this year, he sounded doubtful. The reason is that Governor Justice, having felt the teachers’ sting earlier this year, said he would propose another 5 percent pay increase for educators (although the state’s Republican legislature might not embrace that idea).

There are more teachers’ strikes on tap this school year. On December 5, 500 teachers went on strike against 15 charter schools in Chicago, demanding higher pay and smaller class sizes—it was the first strike by charter school teachers in the nation’s history. Some North Carolina teachers—after their brief walkout last year won few concessions—say they might walk out again this year. Seeing the gains in other states, Louisiana’s teachers are making noises about going on strike if the state doesn’t deliver substantial increases in pay and education funding. Los Angeles teachers, buoyed by teachers’ gains elsewhere, are also threatening to strike. They are at loggerheads with the school district about how the rapid expansion of charter schools has undermined traditional schools and their budgets. Across the country, there’s been a continuing wave of short fast-food strikes and nurses’ strikes, and hotel workers in Los Angeles might walk out this winter. In September, 16,000 steelworkers voted to authorize a strike against United States Steel, but the company averted a walkout by agreeing to give a 14 percent raise over four years.

One factor that might be encouraging strikes is that with the unemployment rate so low, unions need not worry as much about permanent replacement workers taking their members’ jobs, because it’s harder for companies to find such workers. “Unions are finding safe spaces where risks are minimal or finding ways around the risks through short strikes,” says Ruth Milkman, a sociology professor at City University of New York.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, predicts increased labor militancy, notwithstanding setbacks like the Supreme Court’s Janus decision. “I think you’re going to see more activism,” Weingarten says. “At some places there may be walkouts; in some places there will be other types of activism. People are much less afraid nowadays. The feeling is, ‘We won’t just despair.’ People are taking the risk to make something happen, to achieve change.”

That certainly was the case at Google. In high tech, a field that prides itself on its individualism, Google’s workers recognized that to make a sufficiently big statement and to pressure their gargantuan company to mend its ways on how it handles sexual harassment, they could do that far more successfully en masse, with a worldwide walkout, than as individuals.

“The idea that big collective action breeds more collective action is important,” says Harvard Law School’s Sharon Block. “But the fact that union density is so low and we have so few strikes is troubling in terms of how to have workers continue to use this really important tool [strikes] to reassert some power in the economy.”

To Block, it was not at all surprising that the first teachers to strike early this year came from West Virginia counties with a history of miner militancy. “The teachers there had a muscle memory,” Block says. “But a consequence of the historical low point in union density is that more and more people are losing that muscle memory.”

The question labor faces, Block says, is: “Can workers learn about or build that muscle memory so we see more—and more effective—collective action?”

When strikes were common, they were a palpable demonstration of organized labor’s clout, and the sharp decline in strikes has been a testament to labor’s waning power. This year’s surge of strikes shows, however, that the reports of labor’s death are greatly exaggerated. They show that when workers are being badly mistreated—for instance, when teachers receive no raises for years while class sizes are rising and the economy is booming—workers will embrace old-fashioned direct action to make themselves heard and achieve their demands.

In theory, the success of the recent strikes should breed more strikes. But that might not happen, partly because many workers have lost the requisite muscle memory and partly because unions have been on the defensive for years as corporations, courts, conservative billionaires, and GOPlawmakers have colluded to cripple labor. This year’s mad-as-hell strikers have a defiant message for those who hope that labor unions and worker collective action will vanish from the earth: Sorry, but we workers—for the sake of fundamental fairness and to achieve basic gains—continue to need unions and collective action. And strikes.


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