Search form

Learn about how strikes can help you achieve your advocacy goals, about the risks and benefits involved, and about how to plan and carry out an effective strike.

 

  • What is a strike?

  • Why would you want to organize a strike?

  • How do you organize a strike?

 
Dolores Huerta video image.
Dolores Huerta - Co-Founder, United Farm Workers
 

In 1877, when the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad cut its employees' wages for the second time in 8 months, employees in Martinsburg, West Virginia were steamed. In the railyards, employees milled around, talking about the impact the cuts were having on their families and how cheated they felt. Eventually, late in the day, workers told railroad officials that there would be no more trains leaving Martinsburg until the pay cut had been revoked. When the sheriff and, later, the mayor tried to get the employees back to work, they were shouted down by the crowd. Galvanized by their anger and frustration, the workers of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad had started the first nationwide strike in American labor history.
 
The spontaneous strike became more organized quickly. Workers stood together to keep railroad officials and potential strikebreakers away from the trains. Troops were sent in, but many were sympathetic to the workers, so that tactic failed. The strike quickly spread to the entire Baltimore & Ohio line. In Baltimore, more than 15,000 workers - many of whom were supporters from other industries - forced the trains to stop. In St. Louis, workers from almost every industry marched en masse, spreading the strike from neighborhood to neighborhood.
 
While what is now remembered by historians as the Great Upheaval of 1877 eventually sputtered out due to growing opposition from the government, military, and industry, it accomplished a great deal. Many workers prevented further wage cuts and some won concessions. Most importantly, workers showed a unified front to employers, proving that strikes could have a huge impact on business. Today, strikes are a vital tool for workers trying to come to agreements with powerful employers.

 

What is a strike?

A strike is a form of direct action used often, but not solely, by labor unions in which workers band together to refuse to work until certain demands are met. For example, workers might strike to demand salary increases, better benefits, or safer working conditions.
 
Striking is the most powerful way of forcing employers to deal with workers' demands. This tactic will not work, however, unless all workers participate and efforts are made to prevent new replacements from being brought in. Workers need to feel secure that the union will make sure they don't lose their jobs for striking.
 
As you might imagine, orchestrating a general strike is almost always a massive undertaking, and it requires months of planning.

 

Why would you want to organize a strike?

There are many reasons why a well-planned strike is a powerful, effective tactic:

  • Striking shuts down operations at a factory or other work site, forcing the employers to answer workers' demands.
  • Striking attracts a great deal of public attention to your cause.
  • Striking shows how committed workers are to what they're negotiating for.
  • Striking tests your ability to effectively confront the company (of course, you should feel certain that you will be able to rise to such a test!).
  • Striking mobilizes and unifies your membership.
Keep in mind that a poorly-planned strike, however, can be disastrous. Not only might your demands not be met, but workers could lose their jobs, public opinion might sour, and the workers might find themselves in legal hot water.

 

How do you organize a strike?

If you are affiliated with a national union or some other sort of overseeing organization, notify the national offices and find out whether they have any requirements or suggestions for you. Your national office may or may not be needed to approve of even having a strike in the first place. They will definitely need updates and reports throughout the duration of the strike, and they can inform you what form those should take.

Set up committees to handle the various planning responsibilities for the strike. Below are listed some of the committees commonly used in organizing a strike:

  • General strike committee
  • Negotiating committee
  • Picketing committee
  • Publicity committee
  • Financial/fundraising committee
You may find that, for a smaller strike, a single general strike committee may be able to accomplish all the needed tasks. Or you may decide to combine the publicity committee with the financial/fundraising committee, or even split one of the suggested committees in two. Whatever you decide to do, it's less important that you follow these suggested duties for each committee than it is that you be sure each of your committee's duties are clearly defined before you start.
General strike committee:
The general strike committee oversees everything. They appoint all the other committees and coordinate communication between the committees.
Other responsibilities of the general strike committee can include:
  • Retaining an attorney to handle any and all legal issues that might be brought about by the strike.
  • Approving all publicity.
  • Scheduling general membership meetings to keep members apprised of what's going on with the strike
  • Making and keeping a budget and overseeing finances
  • Making records of everything done during the strike - decisions made, who was on which committees, etc.

Negotiating committee:

The negotiating committee will be the people who deal directly with the employers throughout the strike. Their duties include:

  • Presenting and negotiating for workers' demands
  • Informing the general strike committee of all progress
  • Working with the general strike committee to reach any compromises.
Picketing committee:
This committee will oversee all picketing activities. Picketing is the most visible part of your strike -- it's the part that the general public sees on the 6 o'clock news, the part seen by people who drive by on the street, and the thing reporters flock to. Therefore, conducting your pickets in an orderly and effective manner is very important. The picketing committee's duties might be:
  • Assigning all members to a picket group and designating a Picket Captain for each group.
  • Forming a schedule for picketing to make sure you have enough picketers present at all times to be impressive. A picket line with only two or three picketers is a sad sight, and makes it look like your group isn't really united and full of conviction. If you are picketing a single plant or location, you should try to have picketers at all entrances and exits to the building or property.
  • Providing picketers with signs or sign-making materials, if necessary.
  • Keeping records on who pickets and for how long.
  • Keeping the picket lines orderly and legal. For example, keep booze off the picket line at ALL times!
  • Documenting the pickets to counteract legal challenges. Videotaping your picket areas can prove to be very worthwhile.
  • Persuading those not picketing to do so.
  • Setting up entertainment and speakers to appear at the picket lines. This can do wonders for morale! Work with the publicity committee on this one, and try to get press coverage whenever you have a speaker or entertainer.
Example: Documenting your picket area
In 1996, striking employees of the Detroit News were fired for supposedly blocking the entrance to the paper during a peaceful sit-down demonstration. Videotapes made by the union showed that the newspaper's security guards had barricaded the door before the protest even began.
Publicity committee:
The publicity committee must communicate your position to both strikers and the public. Some of the things the publicity committee might do include:
  • Informing strikers of any changes in your negotiating position, how negotiations are progressing, rumor control, important meetings, etc. Some of this can be accomplished with strike bulletins - short newsletters that can be distributed to the members.
  • Portraying strikers as ordinary, hardworking people to the public and showing that their demands are more than reasonable
  • Exposing any threats and misinformation being spread by your opposition
  • Creating brochures, leaflets, press releases, and other materials explaining the reasons for the strike to the general public
  • Coordinating appearances by strike leaders on local radio and television news programs.
Financial/fundraising committee:
Depending on the scope of your strike and how long you think the strike may go on, the cost for a strike might only be a few hundred dollars, or it might run into the tens of thousands. Your financial and fundraising committee might not decide to do all of the following, but give some thought to each one before deciding:
  • Starting and maintaining a strike fund. Start way ahead of time on this! As a matter of fact, it's a good idea to have a strike fund even if you're not planning on having a strike anytime soon.
  • Creating and sending a form letter to creditors and landlords explaining the reasons for the strike and asking that strikers be granted some leeway in paying bills during the strike.
  • Setting up a fund to loan money to workers who need help with payments of their utilities and rent or mortgage
  • Assisting strikers with food purchases during the strike, either by working in conjunction with a local food bank, setting up your own food center, or distributing vouchers that can be used at a grocery store.
  • Arranging for sympathetic local health care providers to handle workers' medical and dental needs during the strike.
  • Finding out what your workers' Medicaid eligibility requirements are and strongly suggesting that those who qualify apply, if needed, during the strike.
  • Including payment of back insurance premiums and medical and dental bills in your strike settlement.
  • Providing transportation (buses, etc.) or vouchers for gasoline or public transportation to strikers if the strike goes on for more than a week or two.

Come up with a budget.

This may be very hard to guess at before the strike begins, but after it starts you can always make revisions. The financial/fundraising committee should come up with the initial budget, and it should be approved by the general strike committee. Things to include are:

  • Legal expenses - mostly dealing with court injunctions and bailing out arrested picketers.
  • Publicity and advertising expenses
  • Food, rent, utility, transportation, and other financial assistance for strikers
  • Printing expenses
  • Any additional expenses, such as rent for strike headquarters, if it's somewhere other than your usual offices.

Draw up a list of demands and set a deadline.

You must be absolutely clear on what you want and why you are threatening to strike. Have a good argument in place for why you want what you want. In addition to whatever key issues the strike focuses on, be sure that your demands include a guarantee that striking workers will not suffer any negative consequences for taking part in the strike and a guarantee of payment of back insurance premiums and medical and dental bills.

 

Negotiate as much as you can before picketing.

You may be able to resolve your demands without anyone having to walk off the job.

Negotiation is a fine art. It requires skills that you may need to find outside of your organization, so consider hiring a negotiator or arbitration service. Check your phone book for negotiation, mediation, arbitration, or conflict resolution. You may also contact the business school of a nearby university.
 
The following are some books on the subject of labor negotiations that may help you at this point as well:
  • Beyond the Walls of Conflict: Mutual Gains Negotiating for Unions and Management by David S. Weiss
  • Negotiating at an Uneven Table: A Practical Approach to Working With Difference and Diversity by Phyllis Beck Kritek
  • The Union Steward's Complete Guide by David Prosten (Editor)
  • Organizing to Win: New Research on Union Strategies by Kate Bronfenbrenner, Sheldon Friedman, Richard W. Hurd, Ronald L. Seeber, and Rudolph A. Oswald (Editors)
  • The Common Law of the Workplace: The Views of Arbitrators by Theodore J. St. Antoine (Editor)
  • Employment Dispute Resolution and Worker Rights in the Changing Workplace (Industrial Relations Research Association Series) by Adrienne E. Eaton and Jeffrey H. Keefe (Editors)
  • Front Stage, Backstage: The Dramatic Structure of Labor Negotiations (Mit Press Series on Organizational Studies) by Raymond A. Friedman
  • How to Prepare and Present a Labor Arbitration Case: Strategy and Tactics for Advocates by Charles S. Loughran
  • Getting to Yes (2nd edition) by Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton
Get your picketers out there! If negotiations have not produced the results you want, it's time to put some muscle behind your threats. See the description of the picketing committee's duties for more on what to do in this step.

 

Negotiate further with management until you reach a mutually acceptable conclusion.

Handling Injunctions:
An injunction, generally, is a legal order requiring a defendant - in this case, striking workers - to refrain from committing a specific act - in this case, picketing, instead of working. Getting an injunction to force striking workers back to their jobs or limit the number of picketers allowed at any given location is a tactic often used by employers, so you'd better be ready for it in case it happens.
 
If your opposition threatens an injunction, get legal representation pronto. While there is a federal law that prohibits employers from obtaining injunctions during strikes, there are some ways to get around it and employers exploit these - claiming that strikers are being violent or blocking access to a plant or building, for example.
 
Counteract this by having the picketing committee make sure that the environment at the pickets is peaceful and orderly. You can further cover your bases by videotaping your pickets, especially anytime that members of your opposition are around.
 
The court will hear evidence from your opponent's lawyer, then set a hearing date to determine whether the injunction will be issued - generally about a week later. At that hearing, you will get to present your side. The opposition can also ask for a temporary restraining order; that is up to the judge.

While this section of the Community Tool Box focuses on general strikes, there are other related methods you may wish to try.

  • Sit-down strikes are usually used when workers are trying to win a single concession from employers. These can be won in a matter of minutes. Everyone simply stops working at once and waits for the employer to give in.
  • Good work strikes are a tactic sometimes used by workers in the service industry in which workers provide their services for free or cheap - cutting into the employers' profits and winning the support of the general public at the same time. For example, bus and train workers in Lisbon, Portugal who were demanding a wage increase in 1969 gave free rides to all of their passengers. They quickly won their raise.
  • Sick-ins happen when all or most workers call in sick at once. This tactic is most effective for single departments or work areas. It is often used by public employee unions, for whom striking is against the law. You may find that the mere suggestion of a sick-in gets results. During a dispute over a fired union worker at a hospital in New England, a shop steward said to a supervisor, "There's a lot of flu going around... wouldn't it be a shame if so many people were sick that we didn't have enough staff to run the wards?" That day, dozens of workers called the personnel office to ask how much sick time they had left. The hospital quickly reinstated the fired worker.

In Summary

As you can see, there are a variety of strategies you can use to get your point across to employers. While striking can have a huge impact on labor negotiations, it should never be taken on lightly. Organize well and organize carefully, however, and you may find that a strike is just what is needed to bring your opposition to its senses.

Online Resources

Bay Area Industrial Workers for the World. (1998). How to fire your boss: A workers' guide to direct action.

Employee Rights is a PDF provided by the United States government, and it offers information on legal rights surrounding unionization and participation in a strike.

How Chicago Teachers Got Organized to Strike is an article published on October 19, 2012 by Norine Gutekanst. 

198 Methods of Nonviolent Action is a resource provided by A Force More Powerful that lists 198 different methods of nonviolent action.

Organizing a Strike for Better Working Conditions is an article by Survival in Sight that discusses using strikes as an effective tool in the workplace. 

Print Resources

Brecher, J. (1997). Strike! Cambridge, MA: South End Press.

Chenoweth, E., & Stephan, M. (2012). Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. Columbia University Press. Using statistical analysis and case studies Chenoweth and Stephan discuss the factors of different civil resistance campaigns that cause some to succeed and others to fail.

Roberts, A., & Ash, T. (2011). Civil Resistance and Power Politics: The Experience of Non-Violent Action from Gandhi to the Present. Oxford University Press. Civil resistance is an inadequately understood feature of world politics, and Roberts and Ash identify and discuss peace struggle as a key phenomenon in international relations. 

Rothman, J., Erlich, J. L., & Tropman, J. E. (1995). Strategies of Community Intervention. Fifth edition. Itasca, IL: F.E. Peacock Publishers, Inc.

Milkman, R., Bloom, J., & Narro, V. (2010). Working for Justice: The L.A. Model of Organizing and Advocacy. ILR Press. Working for Justice provides eleven case studies of recent low-wage worker organizing campaigns in Los Angeles.  This information was acquired through interviews, access to documents, and participant observation.

United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America. (1989). Preparing for and conducting a strike: A UE guide. Fourth edition. Pittsburgh, PA: UE Publishing.