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An Insider's View into the Anatomy of a Strike 8/26/2011

By: Ricardo Torres

I was sitting at my computer the other day reading about the strike at Verizon and looking at the videos and pictures of the “chaos” on the streets. It took me directly back to my days when I was working as a national strike coordinator with the union. I realized that many people don’t really understand the complexity of a strike. Have you ever asked yourself what kind of manipulation takes place to convince 45,000 workers to walk away from their company to go on strike? With over 20 years of working inside the union movement, I had the opportunity to spend some of these years working as a strike coordinator. In fact, I worked with the CWA as co-striking unions on several of these work stoppages. The issues that lead both management and unions to go on strike are never as simple as you read about or see in the media. A strike doesn’t occur without careful consideration and planning by both the company and the union.

Verizon knew they were risking a strike situation when they went after so many “sacred cows” in one contract. They knew it and strategized for the current situation. When I was negotiating contracts and/or coordinating strikes, it was common practice for the company to take informal (or casual) polls with frontline supervisors who were talking to the employees to find out what the sentiments of the bargaining units were and to know how able they were to withstand being out of work. This information was gathered, studied, and used as a guide to establish how many concessions they could get. Prior to a strike situation, management needs to know what the workers weak points are and where they need to beef up their operations. The company needs to put its head down and try to withstand the storm that is sure to come. For the union it is very different. My intent here is not to write about the merits of the strike or who is the good (or bad) guy. My intent is to provide you with an insight into what happens to make union members walk away from their jobs, not knowing when or even if they will return to work. I intend on exploring the reasons an employee becomes such an integral part of the battle with management that they walk away from their job without the ability to provide for their family. I am also going to examine the point when workers start to think of themselves as “union members” rather than employees and who is to blame for them walking away from the job site. Is it the union telling lies to the employees? Is it management misunderstanding the best practice of earning a trusting relationship with their employees? Is it ignorance on the employee’s behalf? Or, is it a combination of all of these? I am not writing this to glorify strike situations. I am writing this to give management, HR professions and labor law professionals a inside view into a strike so that as you develop a contingency plan you have a clearer understanding of what happens behind the scenes and why.

Strike Emotional Strikers Tipping a Vehicle on the Strike Line

I feel that by understanding how unions control the masses of strikers, one can have a deeper understanding of why some workers fight so hard to form unions. The unions can see where contract negotiations are heading well before a strike vote or impasse. Unions need to anticipate the ramifications in concessionary settlements as well as strikes. Think about it, how will the union look in the press and most importantly, how will a weak contract affect other negotiations and (more importantly) future organizing efforts. Also don’t forget, those holding officer positions in the union want to be reelected (which won’t happen if they are unsuccessful and weak).

First of all, this is why so many unions don’t like to have open negotiations and many times they attempt to get a gag agreement for both parties to keep quiet about the progress of the talks. Unions do this so they can twist progress around to agitate the “front line soldiers.” This is also why strong union leaders like to take a strike vote before talks even begin. They will say “we want to walk in and show them we have the full support of our members and we will have more leverage to get our demands met because of it.” As the union inches closer to a strike situation, they need to start wrenching up the tension with their membership. The goal is to get the membership to feel helpless against the companies “heartless and uncaring” tactics. Unions will often target the lead negotiator as a hired villain working on behalf of the company and then paint all management with the same brush. Unions will portray themselves as the only thing preventing management from dragging the workforce through the mud. Of course the union knows this will anger the members to the point that they begin destroying company property and making attacks on “the villain” personal At this point, the union members start to feel like they are doing these activities to protect their family because they are led to believe they are preventing the company from destroying everything they achieved and struggled for; the classic good vs. evil syndrome.

In the United Parcel Service (UPS) strike, many sorting machines were destroyed and truck engines where mysteriously no longer working. In the Detroit Newspaper Strike, over a hundred tires on moving delivery vehicles were torn apart with tire slashing star nails before the strike even started as well as many other incidents. As the strike gets closer, the union needs to balance preparation with caution (not to peak too soon). A good strike strategist knows that the readiness level of the member’s readiness will rapidly decrease after reaching an emotional peak. They know that when a strike begins, their “army” needs to have plenty of activities to do.

I have seen this strategy executed so well in the past that the strikers looked more like they won the lottery than going on strike. I have seen workers running, jumping and shouting as they were going out on strike. They were excited to show the company “who was really in charge”. By the start of the strike, it is imperative that the members have an extreme hatred for the company along with its officers and management team. When I was leading strikes from the national level, we used to say “If you want the baseball to make it over home plate then you better throw it very hard.”

During the first few weeks of the strike is where you learn exactly what type of team you have. It usually takes about a month to receive their first strike check and the first time the strikers miss their regular company paycheck is a watershed moment, so keeping people’s minds and attention in the game is paramount. This is why convincing workers to perform highly visible actions is important. We would have workers bring the kids to the strike line (If you are following Verizon’s strike this should sound familiar). Involving children is a tactic that is very effective in keeping people from crossing a picket line. By tying their struggle to their children, painting them up and holding signs, we were able to make the cause even more personal and much harder to abandon. If a child were injured on the picket line then the members would be even more resolved to continue the fight with the company. The striker has to win for the “sake of his family” and put a human face on the strike for the general public. A child’s face is one that the public sympathizes with on a strike line. The union has to make the strike a matter of pride for the striker, supporting fellow union members as they look at themselves as warriors that earned a “Purple Heart” type of medal fighting for the collective group, it becomes a matter of pride.

Child Child on the Strike Line

The union strike coordinators have to make sure there is a sense of brotherhood among other unions as well. In a large strike (like Verizon) there is a coalition of unions and organizations ready to help. Money is garnered from groups of unions going on speaking tours around the country to keep the strike in the public minds. The worse thing for a union is for the public to forget about their labor struggle.

The union strike leaders have to go after the company in a very public way and very quickly because in a large aggressive strike the company will go after a 10-J injunction to try to get the strike lines reduced to small numbers. Once the number of strikers is limited, then the strike lines have to be ready to move locations at a moments notice as time is never on the side of the union. Getting stock proxies and taking over shareholder meetings, hounding company officers across the country, holding mass rallies, doing TV and radio interviews, store sit ins are important to keep the strikers going. It is always important to bring in well-known religious and community leaders in order to keep morale levels elevated. The strike leaders know that pressures are building every day as the strike progresses. I have personally taken Rev. Jesse Jackson to many strike lines to inspire strikers as I have with Bishops and other religious figures that have been arrested to show their support for the workers. My team and I harassed Rosalynn Carter to resign from the Board of Directors of Gannett Newspapers in an effort to stop following and protesting her all over the country and any public place she spoke at. I helped arrange for Michael Moore to debut his movie “The Big One” in Royal Oak, Michigan where the theater was full of strikers and supporters. He donated the profits to the strike, which gave the strikers a huge morale boost.

Crackers Crakers and Michael Moore visiting an "Employer"

A good strike leader always keeps the strikers active. They don’t give them time to think about the possibility of losing their jobs or losing the ability to pay their bills. A good strike coordinator gets family’s involved as much as possible because they do not want their spouse putting pressuring on them to cross the picket line, it is essential for strikers to keep the hope that they will return to their jobs.

As a national strike coordinator, I knew that there was a propensity for violence. We planned to control violence as much as we possibly could.

In the UPS strike there really was not too much excessive violence. What we did have was roving picket lines, who would follow the big brown trucks on their routes. We also set up strike teams at every high value stop and all of the distribution centers. With the UPS strike we had managed to bring nearly the entire company out on strike with a strong and strategic public relations plan. Our ace-in-the-hole was the customers. We made sure that the union drivers had UPS clients on there side. In the customer’s eyes, it was the trusted drivers against the “bad guy” company. The drivers served as the “human face” of the strike. The UPS strike was relatively easy to control but, in reality, most other large strikes are more difficult to control.

The Detroit Newspaper Strike lasted nearly seven years (from the start of the strike to the signing of a contract), and only a small percentage of the strikers went back to work. The dilemma for the local union officers and the international leadership was (and is) that you have to convince the membership to have enough malcontent towards the company to walk out of the door and on to the strike line. But once that happens it is very hard to reverse the hatred towards the company. This is especially true when you have injunctions and the strikers refuse to end their illegal actions, which put them in direct confrontations with the union. The union has to worry about this because violating these injunctions can cause costly litigation. In the Detroit Newspaper Strike, there were a few RICO charges filed against the IBT, but the violence grew in the first months of the strike. It is important to understand the intense hatred that begins to boil over, especially when you are talking about large strikes. It has surprised me many times in the past how effective a strong campaign against management succeeded in getting average working men and women into “combat mode”. Unless it is managed correctly, it can develop into a very dangerous situation if the strike is not resolved quickly.

Violence Violence during the Detroit Newspaper Strike

Generally, as the strike continues, there is a breakdown of cohesiveness between the strikers. In the Detroit Newspaper Strike, many strikers (and even more supporters) wanted actions taken. In Detroit, we had one group taking over news bureaus and shutting them down until a police presence arrived. There were reports of burning trucks and violence against replacement workers. There were reports of “supporters and strikers” following replacement workers to their homes all over the country (including vandalizing their homes). Roving security guards were attacked while driving their vans. Rocks were thrown through their vehicle windows. Highways were star nailed and shut down causing work time traffic slowdowns. One night, at the major printing plant, there were over 1,000 police officers from all over the state and nearly 5,000 strikers and supporters. The plant was closed down forcing the newspaper company to send helicopters to fly out the Sunday edition. People followed the trucks that were stationed around the city and attacked them. Hand to hand combat with police officers and security forces were common. There were times at strategic locations that the union convinced the strikers and supporters to create so much havoc with so much violence that it became more like a war zone than a strike situation.

Of course these actions were also promoted by a few groups of what we called “the poor little rich boys”. Every major strike I worked on was graced by large groups of Trotsky’s or Workers Revolutionary Party members (followers of Leon Trotsky’s teachings). Actions were also supported by the Wobblies (IWW – International Workers World Party), who loved to immerge themselves into labor actions while agitating people to engage in violence. The Wobblies truly believed in anarchy. I have seen them many times on picket lines where they would sneak up on police officers, strike them physically, run away, and let others take the blame. The Wobblies would also attend open strike meetings with the goal of turning strikers against their elected leaders and each other. They simply wanted chaos in all directions.

Remember, average people who feel they have nothing to lose when hope disappears, this makes them very dangerous and leads them to commit most of the violent actions on strike lines. Many people have a hard time understanding what can drive a non-violent peaceful person to the point where they engage in such extreme violence. In reality, unions use the same tactics while organizing workers (although it is to a lesser degree when organizing). Union leadership works to build up anger levels against management and then simply points them in the right direction and let human nature take its course. Many managers often tell me, “my workers would never try to form a union”, but they haven’t seen how, if given the right prodding, their employees will attack the company that puts the food on the table for their families. Most people don’t realize how much control and manipulation is involved in the union arena. Unions are masters of control and manipulation. Unions are constantly evaluating circumstances, the effects their moves will make, and will put processes in place to control the workers to reach the outcomes union leadership desire.

When I was on the other side (remember, I am writing this so that management understands the inner workings of a strike), we had plans detailing how to respond to strikers who start to pull away from their strike responsibilities by not reporting for strike duty or trying to cross the picket line. Unions have to take a hard line when it comes to strikers. If a striker begins to no longer fear union leadership then the entire strike begins to unwind. The union keeps a very close eye on every single striker. If someone does not show up for their strike duty, then pay is deducted from their strike pay. They are put in their place the moment weakness is witnessed. Every time a striker crosses the line, they pay a price, but the price paid will not bring that worker back across the line, so the punishment is done in front of other workers so that they see what will happen to them if they go against the union and they are filled with fear. Strike leaders intimidate those who go against the union by filing charges against them. Depending on the union’s constitution, actions can be taken but the most effective actions include humiliation in front of their peers.

On large strikes, I personally used a very effective tool when workers crossed the union. I called it “Getting to Know Your Neighbor Day”. I would take between 100 and 200 strikers (as part of their required strike duty) to the house of someone who crossed the line to go back to work (many times this included friends of the one who crossed the line). We had bullhorns, cameras and humiliating signs. We would march up and down their block for two to three hours and create a scene that they would never forget. It was a very public and powerful humiliation. I did not do this to get revenge on the person that crossed the line. I did it so that the other strikers (who were on required strike duty) would say, “I don’t want this to happen to me”. A secondary effect was when other strikers would lash out at the line crosser at of their own free will out of frustration and anger and brand them as a “traitor” within their ranks.

It is important for the unions and the strikers to shape the message of the strike. The union needs to ride the moral high ground in the public eye. The message cannot be overly complicated. It has to be a message that can be repeated at every opportunity. The message has to be something that screams “corporate greed”. The union and the striking members need to give the public the impression that their struggle is comparable to David and Goliath. This is because studies show that the public responds to these types of comparisons. The company needs to be seen as the bully because very few want to see the bully win.

Another contingency plan that union strike leadership must prepare for is deciding when to turn up the heat towards the company as far as permanent damage is concerned. The Verizon strike is one where both sides have dug in their heels. The public fighting has pushed the strike into being about business and social ideology with less emphasis on the nuts and bolts of working out a contract. The public message and perception provided by the union, is that Verizon has become another “union busting company” wrapped in a blanket of corporate greed that doesn’t appreciate the workers who made them successful. The union is portrayed as a bunch of greedy workers who are hell-bent on negotiating the company into bankruptcy. Strikes tend to take on a life of its own, as it now has moved far from the merits of contract negotiations. Contract Negotiations 101 says that you never take anything personal that is said at the negotiation table.

In strike situations, the only way for the union to get concessions from management is to damage the company. The union has many contingency plans in place on what degree to attack long before the first group of workers walks out. I will also say that at some point in a protracted strike, where the two sides are fighting in the media, where the odds of a positive outcome for the union is small, a decision will be made whether to turn the campaign toxic. In every major strike I worked on, we had contingency plans designed to cripple any company if we were suffering a public beating and try to harm all their interest. We had these “scorched earth” plans set in place because it was better to destroy the company and sacrifice workers than to appear weak. If a large public protracted strike gets to this point, then all actions will be made with the goal of financially crippling the company to the point where it is brought to their knees with an attempt to put them out of business or, at the very least, force them to the point where it will take years to regain the presence in the market they once had. This is done by destroying a company’s reputation and attacking their client base. The union’s goal is two fold but both goals are designed to deflect weakness. First of all, the union wants the company to pay for fighting back so hard that weakness is exposed. But most importantly, the union wants other company’s (who are watching the situation closely) to fear them. The unions want other companies to bow to them when they are put in a similar situation because they have witnessed the destruction caused by a nasty strike.

We had come to the same watershed moment at the Detroit Newspaper Strike a year into the work stoppage. We were faced with mounting legal cost, workers were permanently replaced and there was no end in sight with the numerous legal motions and appeals. From that point on, everything we did was designed to destroy the business and maybe open the door for another buyer that would recognize the union strikers. The cost to the newspapers was estimated to be over 500 million dollars to manage the strike with another 700 million in lost revenue. As a strategy we were willing to commit mutual destruction tactics, pick up any pieces, declare victory over a company trying to break the union and ensure that it would be a huge warning to others.

Fire Truck Set On Fire During Detroit Newspaper Strike

The strike at Verizon has a lot in common with the examples given above and has the potential of being an idealistic battle with both sides digging in their heels and letting it become a crusade where the battle lines for both sides are indefensible. AFL/CIO President Richard Trumka, whose claim to fame came from the Pittston Coal Mine Strike, has assured the CWA (and the union movement in general) that there will be no PACTO type watershed opportunity lost on his watch, in other words, the replacement of the air traffic controllers by President Reagan greatly affected the strength of a strike. The current union leadership will not sit idle and allow strike situations in today’s already weakened union environment to reduce their effectiveness further. Verizon and the striking unions have drawn the line in the sand. Now we have to wait and see if both parties can get their backs off the wall and reduce the rhetoric so a settlement can be reached.

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