On July 24, more than 600 Frito-Lay workers in Kansas who had been on strike for three weeks finally signed a new union contract. The contract, won at great personal cost for the striking factory workers, came with a modest 4 percent wage increase, and the right to at least one day off per week.
It is absurd that these workers had to undertake a painful strike in order to win those things, and they deserve praise for being willing to fight so hard for their own rights. But after the congratulations, we should also be honest about another thing: The enormous amount of effort invested in the strike resulted in fairly paltry gains. This is sadly common, and it underscores the fact that employers often have a built-in advantage when their workers go on strike — namely, that low-wage workers can’t afford to go very long without getting paid. If the labor movement wants to take full advantage of the recent surge in worker militancy, it’s time that we build more than a piecemeal solution to this perpetual problem.
The long decline in union density since the 1950s is well known, but the portion of workers who are union members is not the only way to measure the level of latent labor power in America. Strikes themselves are a meaningful metric as well. Having a lot of strikes happening shows that there are many strong, aggressive and confident unions at work. They also create a positive feedback mechanism for organized labor as a whole — strikes get attention, and successful strikes are a tangible demonstration of union power in action. Strikes keep unions in the news, and in the minds of the majority of working people who are not themselves union members. Every time someone sees striking workers win something, it may occur to them that unions have something to offer. In this way, strikes drive new organizing and the expansion of labor power nationwide.
Data going back nearly 50 years shows strike activity in America peaking in 1974, when 1.8 million workers were involved in a work stoppage, and then fell steadily to a low of a mere 25,000 workers in 2017. In the past few years, however, strike activity has rebounded sharply, with more than 400,000 workers participating in 2018 and 2019. (In 2020, major strikes fell again, but that year of Covid-19 is hard to compare to previous ones.)
The pandemic was a galvanizing event for the half or so of the working population who saw, in a very tangible way, that their lives are considered disposable. Right now, we can look across the country and see some of the upswells of worker anger that have burst forth into strikes: the nurses in Massachusetts, the miners in Alabama, the Spectrum workers in New York whose endless battle drags grimly on. These high profile strikes, to a large extent, define union power in the public mind. Winning them is important not just for the workers on the picket line, but for the entire labor movement. And, when strikes are very hard, their biggest vulnerability is the simple reality that workers on the picket line are not getting paid — the brutal economic calculus that ultimately defines how long and hard people can fight before they need to settle.
Individual unions do have strike funds, but these are meager — often, union members can expect to get a few hundred bucks from a strike fund in the time they might have gotten a few thousand from work. Strike funds will always pay less than wages. (A little math can help demonstrate why: In Alabama, for example, 1,100 miners have been on strike for four months. If the United Mine Workers paid each of them even a thousand dollars a week, they would have already spent more than $50 million. To guarantee that rate of compensation for every strike would rapidly bankrupt most unions, and would create an incentive for unions to push hard against big strikes by members.) But the strength of the labor movement is about thinking collectively in the largest possible sense. If we want to encourage more big, high profile strikes that can carry on long enough to secure major gains, we have to have a big, national strike fund.
To be perfectly clear, I’m not holding my breath for the creation of a centralized strike fund big enough to cover lost wages for anyone who goes on strike. The entities big enough to make those sorts of payouts are called “businesses.” What we can do is to build one central strike fund for the entire labor movement, that can jump in and boost the strike pay for workers engaged in strikes of major strategic value — and to issue hardship grants to striking workers with specific needs — so that those strikes can carry on long enough to be worthwhile. If the Frito-Lay workers in Kansas had had a little more money to carry them through, perhaps they could have won something better than, basically, the working conditions of a factory worker a century ago.
Every union could kick into a central strike fund that has the authority to bolster the benefits of workers engaged in strikes that have great importance for all of us. This is collective power in action. Once a fund like this is established, it can fundraise, to bring in private donations; it could also seek out government funds, the same way that unions should be doing for their new organizing efforts right now, while they have friends in Washington. (How to create new funding streams for organized labor is an exciting topic for another day.) The point is that a much larger pool of money can be put together collectively by the entire universe of unions and their political allies than can be compiled by any individual union. And that big pool of money can serve as a potent sort of insurance for workers who are considering a tough strike, but unsure of whether they can hold the line long enough.
The labor movement would greatly benefit from a huge increase in big picture thinking. We do not want to just sit back and let things happen to us, and react as best we can. We want to have a plan and then make it a reality. We should not just want to wait for strikes to happen, then maybe throw a few bucks into a GoFundMe and hope for the best. We need to recognize some basic truths: More strikes are good for the growth of the labor movement as a whole. Each strike is a public test of union power. We all have an interest in making high profile strikes successful. And the strategic application of funding to help striking workers succeed benefits all of us by facilitating and encouraging the next strike, and the next organizing campaign, and a brighter future in which unions are strong and ubiquitous once again.
Let’s get to work.
Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.