Vladimir Lenin once described strikes as a response, or an act of resistance of the workers, that comes about as a result of the progression of capitalist development. When capitalists are confronted by an organized front of workers who are putting forward demands and threaten to strike if these demands aren’t met, they threaten the wealth of their employer and then “the situation changes.”
A strike, Lenin wrote for Rabochaya Gazeta in On Strikes, “teaches [workers] not to think of their own employer alone and not of their own immediate workmates alone but of all the employers, the whole class of capitalists and the whole class of workers.”
There has been growing attention on strikes in the United States, especially in light of the victory of Verizon workers.
The 40,000-strong Verizon strike, by members represented by Communication Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), began on April 13 at 6:00 am, and lasted 45 days.
The gains that came about as a direct result of this strike, as listed by Stand Up To Verizon, are inspiring: a 10.5 percent wage increase over the next four years, increased contributions to pensions, the first ever contract for nearly 70 Verizon Wireless retail store workers, and the withdrawal of proposed cuts in accident and disability benefits.
Maria, who is choosing to go by her first name, is a former steward for her union in graduate school and a member of the bargaining team of her current union. She told Shadowproof:
I have been involved in one strike, so far. The strike was graduate teaching assistants at my university. This was a while ago, but if I remember correctly it only took two days for the university to cave in. Graduate students have amazing leverage in the university when it comes to labor struggle: since they teach such a high proportion of classes, they can shut down most instruction. I’ve been trying to figure out how my union membership can exert that kind of power in case we need to strike in the future.
In her experience, Maria says she’s only seen two things that will move the bosses to make concessions to workers. “The first is public shaming. The second is [striking]. The very threat of a strike can sometimes be all that is necessary to win, but for that to be effective, both the bosses and the workers need to really believe in the will of the workers to follow through.”
She said strikes go beyond providing workers immediate gains in a contract fight and argues going on strike teaches workers who’ve “internalized capitalist narratives” that they aren’t necessarily expendable.
When asked about what she’d describe as a misconception concerning strikes and labor organizing, she focuses on the belief widely held in the U.S. that strikes only benefit workers being represented by the union behind the strike:
Recently in the U.S., we have seen strikes where teachers are demanding better facilities for their students or health care workers are saying they can’t adequately care for patients. Many of the concerns of the members of our union should also be concerns of the general public: poor working conditions for researchers and university educators are already starting to have some nasty repercussions for society and it is on track to get worse.
Sixty-four year-old Jim Jordan, who has been a member of United Steelworkers of America (USWA) for 28 years, was a member of the late Solidarity USA, as well as the late Youngstown Solidarity Worker’s Club (YSWC), tells Shadowproof that strikes “open people up to see [the injustices] being done to others.”
The biggest strike Jordan helped organize while part of YSWC was the Trumbull Memorial Hospital Strike:
Our Youngstown Worker’s Solidarity Club would aid people on strike or unfairly fired etc. Many times we helped them fight their company and many times their own union that was doing a lousy job of representing them. A couple of our members were lawyers who could guide people what they could do legally. The rest of us did anything from providing firewood to walking picket lines. YWSC was an all volunteer group of loosely organized unionist, non-unionist, activists, professors etc.
Jordan echoed the sentiment of many others who spoke to Shadowproof, stating that the most powerful way to support workers isn’t just to refuse to cross their picket line, but to ask them how you can contribute to help in their struggle. “Spend some of your valuable time joining them on the picket line,” he said. “Write an editorial in your local newspaper supporting their strike.”
Strikes are only one method at the disposal of workers, and unless they are organized as a collective front, as a body, then they’ll surely fail. But when the individual worker bands together with others, and sharpens the focus against abusive employers, they will not only make impressive gains. They will inspire others to take action as well.