With 3 Recent High-Profile Walkoffs, Is the Wildcat Strike Back?

Shaun Richman February 12, 2016

New York Uber drivers during their wildcat strike earlier this month. (Spencer Platt / Getty)

Three high-pro­file wild­cat strikes have caught busi­ness watch­ers and union lead­ers by sur­prise in recent weeks. Could they be bell­wethers for a ris­ing tide of work­er militancy?

A wild­cat strike is one that occurs with lit­tle notice or legal sanc­tion. Wild­cats are often orga­nized in vio­la­tion of a con­trac­tu­al com­mit­ment not to strike or a legal pro­hi­bi­tion to do so, and in defi­ance of both the employ­er and offi­cial union lead­er­ship. Non-union work­places wild­cat by strik­ing with­out for­mal­ly cer­ti­fy­ing or affil­i­at­ing with a union.

Wild­cat job actions have sparked some of the largest strike waves and union gains in Amer­i­can his­to­ry, and the revi­tal­iza­tion of the 21st cen­tu­ry labor move­ment will require a degree of work­er orga­niz­ing that is not depen­dent on union staff and resources. So spon­ta­neous job actions mer­it attention.

The sud­den return of the wildcat

Long­shore­man at the New York and New Jer­sey ports launched a clas­sic wild­cat strike on Fri­day, Jan­u­ary 29, catch­ing the Port Author­i­ty, the Ship­ping Asso­ci­a­tion and their own Inter­na­tion­al Long­shore­men Asso­ci­a­tion total­ly unaware. The strike, which cost busi­ness­es that rely on the ports to ship goods in and out of the coun­try hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars in a few short hours, was appar­ent­ly in protest of a gov­ern­ment agency, the Water­front Com­mis­sion of New York Har­bor, impos­ing new job require­ments on top of and out­side the bounds of the longshoremen’s col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agreement.

The walk­out seems to have been a gen­uine­ly spon­ta­neous action, sparked and spread with­in a few short min­utes and over by night­fall. Indus­try observers are still scratch­ing their heads at what it all meant, and whether it will hap­pen again. 

The fol­low­ing Mon­day, NYC-based dri­vers for the con­tro­ver­sial rideshare” app, Uber, began a 24-hour work stop­page and staged a ral­ly out­side of the company’s local head­quar­ters. The tech firm is noto­ri­ous for its ques­tion­able legal prac­tices of treat­ing its employ­ees as inde­pen­dent con­trac­tors” and often oper­at­ing out­side of taxi and lim­ou­sine reg­u­la­tions in order to under­cut tra­di­tion­al yel­low cabs and car ser­vices. Dri­vers struck in protest of a 15% reduc­tion in Uber’s fares, a cost that they alone must absorb.

While planned at least a day or two in advance, this wild­cat strike was orga­nized by an infor­mal net­work call­ing them­selves Uber Dri­vers Unit­ed,” accord­ing to the home­made fliers they hand­ed out (although some coor­di­na­tion with the Taxi Work­ers Alliance has been not­ed). Uber was designed by its Sil­i­con Val­ley founders to dis­rupt” tra­di­tion­al work rules and reg­u­la­tion and to def­i­nite­ly be union free. The strik­ers are not demand­ing union recog­ni­tion in the mod­ern sense, but sim­ply demand­ing a roll­back of the wage cut.

While the smug busi­ness press scoffs (Fast Com­pa­ny said of the strike, The irony, of course, is that by tak­ing a slew of dri­vers off the road, the strike actu­al­ly serves as a good oppor­tu­ni­ty for oth­er dri­vers to prof­it from surge pric­ing, the fare increase that Uber impos­es when demand is high”), the protests could spread to oth­er cities.

Ear­li­er in Jan­u­ary, a fac­tion of Detroit school­teach­ers led by for­mer Detroit Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers (DFT) pres­i­dent Steve Conn staged a wild­cat sick­out over the abhor­rent phys­i­cal con­di­tions of the school build­ings that forced 64 out of 97 schools to close. Conn’s group is exact­ly the sort of alter­na­tive com­pet­i­tive union that I have pre­dict­ed will become the norm if unions embrace non-exclu­sive mem­bers-only orga­niz­ing.

Conn, a polar­iz­ing peren­ni­al oppo­si­tion leader, eked out a nar­row win for pres­i­dent in a low turnout elec­tion in Jan­u­ary of 2015. But he failed to car­ry his slate in the union’s exec­u­tive board elec­tions and seem­ing­ly made lit­tle effort to uni­fy the union around his agen­da. An unpop­u­lar attempt to dis­af­fil­i­ate the DFT from the nation­al Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers result­ed in his removal from office eight months lat­er. (Full dis­clo­sure: I am a for­mer orga­niz­er at the AFT.)

Conn has since tried to decer­ti­fy the DFT in favor of a new union he calls the Detroit Teach­ers Union. The sick­outs over the crum­bling infra­struc­ture and lack of invest­ment in Detroit pub­lic schools was his group’s attempt to vie for shop floor pow­er. In so doing, Conn may have found his true call­ing as the leader of a proud­ly inde­pen­dent mil­i­tant minor­i­ty union.

As far as I can tell, most Detroit pub­lic school teach­ers retain their loy­al­ty to the DFT, even if many were will­ing to take part in the frankly long over­due protest. The DFT, of course, had to denounce the action. They signed a con­tract with a no-strike clause, Michi­gan pub­lic sec­tor law makes any strike ille­gal and the vicious­ly right-wing state leg­is­la­ture is seek­ing ret­ri­bu­tion via a bill that would decer­ti­fy any union that allows a wild­cat strike to hap­pen.

But the AFT has embraced the issue, if not the wild­cat tac­tic, and suc­cess­ful­ly con­nect­ed the deplorable con­di­tion of Detroit schools with the poi­son­ing of the chil­dren of Flint as a nation­al scan­dal that nat­u­ral­ly fol­lows from elect­ing the GOP equiv­a­lent of Immor­tan Joe to run a once-func­tion­al state government.

A bell­wether or a fluke?

The U.S. labor move­ment has his­tor­i­cal­ly grown in incred­i­bly short and intense peri­ods of activ­i­ty, and then slow­ly declined in the inter­im peri­ods. All of these peri­ods of growth cor­re­spond­ed with a mass strike wave (although not every mass strike wave — of which there have only been about sev­en or eight since the Civ­il War — has result­ed in mem­ber­ship growth for unions).

Most Amer­i­can strike waves have been led from below. Many began with wild­cats that were unplanned or even opposed by union lead­er­ship. When con­di­tions were right, union lead­ers swooped in to take charge of the actions and cut peace deals with the boss­es that led to mea­sur­able gains for the work­ing class. This is a healthy — and miss­ing — dynam­ic in the labor movement.

Arguably only two of the great strike waves were planned and led by unions. One was the post-WWII wave of strikes that saw demands for a bet­ter qual­i­ty of life, long-delayed by war and depres­sion, final­ly begin to be real­ized. The oth­er was the wave of strikes for union recog­ni­tion in the pub­lic sec­tor in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Those are exam­ples of union lead­er­ship rec­og­niz­ing and har­ness­ing gen­uine rank-and-file mil­i­tan­cy and win­ning big. Because they are two of the most recent strike waves, they have left an out­sized psy­chic impres­sion on our move­ment as well as the resid­ual mag­i­cal think­ing that if only Richard Trum­ka or [insert your favorite union leader to com­plain about here] would snap his fin­gers and call for a gen­er­al strike, then labor would be restored to its right­ful posi­tion of pow­er and influence.

This is both ahis­tor­i­cal and betrays a lack of aware­ness of labor’s cur­rent state of organization.

The best that the present­ly exist­ing unions can do is prep for job actions that can serve as an inspi­ra­tion to even non-union work­ers and have a decent shot at win­ning. The once and future Chica­go teach­ers strike, Fight for 15 and Bar­gain­ing for the Com­mon Good are the best con­tem­po­rary exam­ples of the kind of union lead­er­ship that’s needed.

In response to my last piece on labor’s ulti­mate weapon, his­to­ri­an Erik Loomis writes, The real les­son of study­ing strikes is that they can serve as a great win­dow into their time. Some­times they are aspi­ra­tional, demand­ing and win­ning real changes in the lives of work­ers.” He points to the sit-down strikes that orga­nized Gen­er­al Motors and the Lawrence Bread and Ros­es strike as exam­ples of aspi­ra­tional strikes. (The two planned strike waves I cite above also fit the bill.) Oth­er times though, what strikes real­ly tell us is that work­ers are des­per­ate,” and their strikes rep­re­sent last-ditch efforts to save what they once had.”

All three of the wild­cat strikes high­light­ed here cer­tain­ly have an air of des­per­a­tion about them. With work­ers rights under attack and mid­dle-class liv­ing stan­dards increas­ing­ly out of reach for most, des­per­a­tion is like­ly to be what inspires mil­i­tan­cy in the short run. The key, I think, is for work­ers to at least feel some agency in their strug­gle against descend­ing into a worse life, if not actu­al­ly win­ning a bet­ter one.

And, for bet­ter or for worse, the work­ers who took part in these three wild­cat actions do come away feel­ing more pow­er­ful because at least the action was their deci­sion and their protest. Each action clear­ly caused the employ­er some dis­com­fort, which is in turn some com­fort to the activists who took the risk. And that small win, one hopes, did not go unno­ticed by oth­er work­ers who are now fan­ta­siz­ing about how to ruin their boss’ day one day.

Shaun Rich­man is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer and the Pro­gram Direc­tor of the Har­ry Van Ars­dale Jr. School of Labor Stud­ies at SUNY Empire State Col­lege. His Twit­ter han­dle is @Ess_Dog.
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