What’s a strike? Why do they happen? What’s a picket line? How can I support a strike? What is the mass media likely to say about a strike? What role do the courts and labour board play? What dirty tricks might be expected from employers? Team Advantage addresses all this and more in our overview of labour action basics.
A transcript follows the break.
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Kate: Hello, and welcome to The Alberta Advantage. I’m your host, Kate Jacobson, and joining Team Advantage today are Joel —
Joel: Hello, hello.
Kate: And Rory —
Kate: This is a recording that we are doing ahead of time and will be releasing in the spontaneous and off chance that there is some type of labour action or strike that happens in Alberta. It’s meant to basically be a resource for folks who are unfamiliar with strikes — what they are, their history, their utility, what they look like — and, as such, it won’t be describing the specifics of any particular strike that may or may not be happening at the time that you are listening to this episode, but will speak more generally about the dynamics that are at play during a strike. So, I think we should start off with some really basic questions, which are: what is a strike, and who and what does it involve?
Rory: So, a strike is the withholding of labour by workers in order to obtain better wages or working conditions — that’s the definition we settled on. There’s a lot of leeway, but I think that covers most of it.
Kate: And I would say, also, to win any kind of gain. Some of the most interesting examples of collective bargaining that are happening are people fighting to win things that are not necessarily about their direct wages or their working conditions, but rather about the conditions of their communities. I know there are bargaining units in healthcare in Alberta who put on the table during bargaining that the corporate tax rate should be raised, and I think that’s an example of what you might call bargaining for the common good.
Rory: Yeah, strikes have been used, in the past, to demand political demands — a great example I can think of off the top of my head was in March in 1920, in Germany, the new Weimar Republic democracy was briefly overthrown by a military coup and, in response to the coup, over 10,000,000 worker just walked off the job the next day, demanding an end to the military assault on the democracy, and the coup collapsed. So it wasn’t a demand for better wages or working conditions, it was a political demand, and they used a strike to get it.
Kate: So, a strike is a way to wait on some kind of collectively-agreed upon or expressed demand, whether that is financial, social, political, any of those things. But what’s key to it is that it is done, and the exercise of power to make that demand, is by withdrawing your labour and saying, “I am not going to work. My coworkers are not going to work. Me and all these other people are not going to work unless this demand is met.”
Joel: How is it different from a lockout or other labour actions like work-to-rule or a slowdown?
Kate: So, a lockout is the opposite of a strike, and it is actually the temporary shutdown of a business by an employer to compel employees to accept certain conditions. So, in the most traditional example of this — and it still does happen — workers will literally show up to their workplaces to find the doors locked and themselves unable to get in, and it’s usually done to break unions, to break workers’ spirits, and to force workers at bargaining tables to accept concessions or rollbacks.
Rory: So, an example of that is the lockout at the Federated Co-op Limited Refinery in Regina, where the employer locked out the union.
Kate: The thing about work-to-rule and slowdown is that, if you look at the Canadian Labour Code, those things actually are technically strikes — strike is any action taken by two or more employees designed to slow down or disrupt production — but they are different than what people think of when they think of the word “strike.” A strike is withdrawing your labour in its totality; work-to-rule is when you work only to the conditions of your contract. This is a very common tactic used by teachers, who often do a lot of work outside of their contract — think supervising at lunch, running after-school clubs, programs, things like that. By ceasing to do those things, you’re causing a disruption to the system of your employment without actually fully shutting things down. And a slowdown is basically when you slow down, or in some way sabotage, the mechanisms of work. I know of a really interesting example of this is: call centre workers on Staten Island are so good at their jobs, and they know exactly what makes the company money and what doesn’t. There’s a very interesting case of them in the 2000s — someone got fired and they wanted them rehired, so they just stopped doing things that were value added, and they lost the company hundreds of thousands of dollars until their coworker was hired back.
Joel: Pretty good.
Kate: Pretty cool. So, looking at the strike historically — what is the basic history of the strike? When do we first see them, and when do they take shape and form into the modern strike that we know today?
Rory: As we know, strikes are an enduring feature of capitalist society, but the strike has a very, very long history. We have a record of artisans under Pharaoh Ramses III walking off the job over unpaid wages 3100 years ago. And then the records apparently mention that they won a pay increase as a result.
Joel: Since the Industrial Revolution, strikes are much more common as the way that capital concentrates workers into cities makes organizing strikes much easier.
Kate: So, as a result of this, you basically see the growth of trade unions to organize workers to strike more effectively and to gain more leverage to bargain for better wages, working conditions, political demands. And strikes, in some way, seem like a normal aspect of our society, and labour unions are legally recognized institutions that have millions of members, and legal strikes are governed by very strict sets of rules; but most people are not in a union, and most people who are in a union have collective agreements that were settled without going on strike, so it is highly possible that you, and definitely most people in our society, have never been on strike and have never walked a picket line and have never even known anyone who has been on strike.
Rory: Also, in the history of strikes, they tend to follow other big structural events — so, wars tend to be a thing where a lot of strikes happen, particularly in the aftermath of wars. So, after World War I, around Europe and North America, there were giant waves of strikes, mostly in response to inflation, which had increased costs of living while wages had not kept up. After World War II, I think 1946 and ‘47 in the United States, was the highest number of strikes ever recorded in the US — just, massive waves of strikes. So, strikes also happen when workers feel they have a lot of leverage to go on strike — so, usually when unemployment is low is another time you’ll see a lot of this, or any other kinds of economic disruption, you can have that. But you have waves of strikes throughout history, so we’re kind of at a low ebb of that right now.
Joel: Kate, what should people do during a strike, in particular if they’re one of the workers on strike?
Kate: If you are one of the workers who is on strike, you should leave your place of employment and you should join a picket line.
Rory: Preferably the one at your worksite.
Joel: What’s a picket line?
Kate: A picket line is the physical manifestation of shutting down that worksite. So, in a real sense, striking is just ceasing to work; so you could technically have a strike where everyone walks off the job and they all just go home, but the employer could bring in replacement worker — scabs — and, also, it doesn’t have as much impact as having a picket line, which is basically a physical representation of that facility and that workplace being shut down. So, oftentimes picket lines will prevent scabs from getting into the worksite. They can also prevent materials from getting in or out of the worksite, and they are a place, also, that a lot of the community and solidarity that arises during a strike is created.
Rory: So, yeah — seeing people walking in a line in front of the gate of a factory with signs saying, “On Strike Local 502” or whatever, that’s essentially what a picket line looks like.
Kate: And employers do try and bring in scabs to replace the workers that are on strike, so having a picket line can be both a physical deterrent — if it’s a hard picket line where you’re actually physically blocking people or supplies from going in — but you can also have a soft picket line, where it’s kind of a moral deterrence. There are a lot of people who are not in unions, who do not consider themselves trade unionists, who, if you get to a worksite and there’s a thousand people there who are screaming at you that you are a bad person for going to work there, you might just go home and find a different job.
Joel: Speaking of which — if I’m a worker whose bargaining unit is not on strike, but operates at the same site or the same location as a striking worker’s, what should I do?
Kate: You should refuse to cross picket lines. Now, that is illegal because solidarity is basically illegal in Alberta. If you are worried about the illegality of this action and you think that your union, if you are in one, is not going to support you, or you think you’re going to be subject to a lot of retaliation from management, a really good way to do this is: you can actually, under Occupational Health and Safety legislation, refuse unsafe work, and what you can do is you can say, “The picket line, because of all the yelling and the shouting, made an unsafe work environment, and I was unable to come into work.” That’s kind of the weaselly way of not crossing a picket line — the principled way is to be like, “I respect your picket line, and I’m not coming into work,” but that does come with a lot more added risks. There are very, very few unions who have written into their collective bargaining agreements that they have the right to not cross other people’s picket lines, and that is because, once again, solidarity is illegal in Alberta.
Rory: Generally, sympathy strikes across the country are illegal, mainly because they’re very effective. Typically, you can’t go on strike unless you are legally in a position to go on strike, which means you can’t usually go on strike if you want to go support another union.
Kate: Fortunately, if the strike is illegal already, then… in for a penny, in for a pound.
Joel: Yeah, I just want to reiterate that sympathy strikes are very effective but also, usually, illegal. So, just —
Rory: That is why they are illegal. [laughs]
Kate: Huge bummer.
Joel: Yeah, so, can’t be recommending them enough on this podcast because they’re illegal. Wouldn’t want to do that. Next question, Kate. If I’m not directly involved in the strike — I’m not a worker related to the site or whatever — but I want to support the workers at the site, what should I do?
Kate: You should go to the picket line and walk it with them. So, when you go to a picket line, you’re going to want to ask someone who the picket capitain or who the line leader is, and that’s the person who is in charge of the line. On picket lines, usually guests will be asked to sign in so a record can be kept of who is actually on the line, and, oftentimes, picket captains will send thank-yous and stuff to people who come walk the line with people. And that can be really important because, when you’re on strike, you’re subject to a lot of hostility from your employer, the bourgeois press, maybe your conservative friends or family, so having people that you don’t know, who aren’t related to your workplace, come and say, “What you are doing is amazing, you are so brave, you are all working-class heroes and I am here to support you,” is a huge morale booster, and keeping morale up on the picket line is a huge part of having a successful strike. I would also — I try to never go to a picket line empty-handed; always bring food of some kind, and if a strike is being prolonged for a long length of time, oftentimes monetary donations — things like gift cards to grocery stores, things like that, contributions to the strike fund — can be really, really appreciated. But, when in doubt: go to a picket line, introduce yourselves to the picket captain, get their number, and just say, “Is there anything you need on this line?” I always ask.
Rory: Yeah, and walking a picket line is fun. I’ve done it a few times now. You get to talk to people about what their specific grievances are, why they’re on strike or why they’re locked out, and you get to see different parts of the city, or even southern Alberta.
Kate: It can also be super helpful, if you want to support the workers, to contact their employer — whether by call or by email — and let them know that you support the workers that are on strike and you want them to settle their labour dispute. In the public sector, this would look like calling your MLA, emailing your MLA, and basically just saying, “I support the workers that are on strike.” It’s a really small thing, it’s not going to have a huge impact, but it’s a nice thing to do.
Joel: When it comes to picket lines, Kate, is a picket line just a big protest saying “We don’t like this workplace,” or “The employer should do what we say,” or is there maybe some sort of more strategic aim to it?
Kate: A picket line is an expression of power. You are stopping operations and creating a crisis of some kind until your demands are met. In the private sector, this means creating a crisis of profit — you are stopping your employer from being able to make money off of your labour until they meet your demands. In the public sector, this looks like creating a crisis of social reproduction — maybe you’ve shut down elective surgeries or day surgeries in hospitals, you shut down the schools so people have nowhere to drop their kids off for free childcare. Those things all create a crisis because those services are required for our society to operate, and, by creating that crisis, you have leverage to force the government or the emplpyer to meet your demands. So it’s not just protesting, it’s not just lodging a complaint — you’re saying, “This is how much power we have, this is what we’re willing to do, and we’re not conceding until X, Y, and Z is met.” And that’s why, generally, they are so much more impactful and risky than protests.
Joel: The mass media tends to really like stories with some sort of conflict and, particularly, with great visuals, so I assume that the mass media is a big fan of covering strikes and giving them fair coverage. Would you say that’s accurate, Kate?
Kate: Not only is the mass media likely to ignore strikes, but when they do get covered, they get covered in a really specific way, and they covered as if they are a) bad, but it’s bad in a very specific, moralizing way. So, labour disputes are often covered, not as an altercation between an employer or the government versus the workers, but rather as between the workers and some kind of nebulous, very vulnerable third party. So: the public, in the case of, say, a public-sector walkout, or the elderly, in the case of a strike at a continuing care home, the children, in the case of a teachers’ strike; even the suffering economy in the case of the UNIFOR workers blocked out in Regina. So, it really removes the agency of the person or the people or the institution who have the actual ability to end the strike — capital or the state — and it really takes them out of the equation and makes the strike something being done, not usually by workers, but by unions and union bosses to the public. And I think that’s a really unfair way of characterizing strikes that is designed to demonize unions, demonize workers, and demonize the working class and make strikes seem like something that is irresponsible and negligent to do.
Joel: What could possibly be a motivation on the part of the mass media for covering strikes in this really torqued way?
Kate: I think it’s really important to consider who owns the media, especially in Alberta. So, Global is owned by Corus (until last year, it was heavily linked to Shaw); CTV is owned by Bell; 660 News is owned by Rogers; Postmedia — that’s the Calgary Herald, the Edmonton Journal, both the Calgary and Edmonton Suns — 66% of Post Media network shares are owned by an American hedge fund, and this was really instrumental in their right-wing editorial shift, which you can listen about in a previous Alberta Advantage episode on the Herald strike. But, you know, these are owned by massive corporations who have extremely specific interests, and those interests align with capital, and those interests do not align with unions or with workers.
Rory: Well, think of Postmedia, for example — in every election, provincial or federal, routinely endorses the Conservatives. There was an editorial written centrally and then sent out to all the papers to endorse the Conservatives. So, this paper is definitely going to demonize strikes on behalf of the Conservative governments that they support. So, basically, you could expect the Calgary Herald to campaign against any strike in Alberta, particularly a public-sector strike, in order to help Kenney.
Joel: Okay. So, the mass media’s probably not going to be on our side. What if public opinion isn’t on the side of the strikers?
Kate: Well, fortunately, the public doesn’t settle strikes. And a lot of work is going to be done by the media and governments to turn public opinion against a strike — this is particularly true in the public sector, and has always been true in the public sector, but I also think we’ve seen this be escalatingly true in the private sector. I think about Premier Jason Kenney’s response to the Teamster strike that happened in the fall/winter of last year and how he was immediately advocating and agitating for them to be legislated back to work by the federal government. I also think, too, about the reaction of this government to the lockout of UNIFOR workers at the refinery in Regina; there is a huge amount of manufacturing disdain for workers and for strikers, and this can be really effective in shifting public opinion against strikers. Propaganda works.
Joel: It doesn’t always. I mean, a great example is the elementary school teachers in Ontario with the Ford government. The Ford government has been spectacularly unsuccessful in getting public opinion on their side. In fact, only — I think there was a poll done that said there was maybe a third of Ontarians took the Ford government’s side against the teachers and the rest supported the strike. It can go either way, but — primarily — the governments and media are going to work to turn public opinion against a strike.
Kate: And, certainly, unions and workers in industries where public opinion is going to be crucial to settling a strike can do work ahead of time to ensure that the public is on their side, to involve them in the bargaining process and the buildup to a strike; so, when it is undertaken, the public is on their side. It can be a powerful leverage tool. Teachers are, I think, one of the few industries where the public really does settle strikes; you absolutely can win a teacher strike without the public on your side, but it is so much easier with the public on your side in that particular case.
Rory: Yeah, especially because it has to do with the fact that you have all these families where their children have nowhere to go during the workday, so it has a very direct impact on all these families.
Kate: The thing is, ultimately, public opinion does not settle strikes, opinion polls don’t settle strikes, the polls that are on the sidebar of the Calgary Herald website don’t settle strikes; they are conflicts between workers and their employer, whether that employer’s in the public sector or the private sector, and there have been deeply, deeply unpopular strikes that have nonetheless won. Somewhat less traditional example are the Quebec student strikes which, by the time they won, were extremely unpopular — deeply, deeply unpopular — but they toppled a government. If you are able to intervene in the economy and in the functioning of capital at a critical juncture, it doesn’t matter if fucking everybody hates you, you can still win, and that is why strikes are such an interesting, and such a powerful, weapon.
Rory: Yeah, I mean, sometimes a super unpopular strike might mean the public is just like, “Give them what they want just so this will end.”
Kate: Yeah, this can happen too, especially where, in public sector strikes, the sense of crisis becomes so large that governments will agree with union and worker demands, even if the public fucking hates the union and the workers.
Rory: But low public opinion might be used by the government as an opening to legislate them back to work with whatever deal the government wants to give.
Kate: And, also, violence against strikers, or heavy fines against strikers, are going to be much more palatable to the public if the strike itself is already seen to be incredibly unpopular. Ultimately, though, I just don’t care what the public thinks — I care what the working class thinks.
Joel: We live in this really great liberal democracy where the law is really important, so surely the law supports workers and their struggles.
Kate: [laughs] Strikes are only legal in extremely narrow circumstances. If you and your coworkers walked off the job tomorrow or today to protest mistreatment, you could face big fines for an illegal strike. Often, it’s illegal to not go to work. I mean, it’s not illegal for me to just not show up to work tomorrow, but if it is done in a concentrated effort and in an organized way, it becomes illegal to do, and it can become, actually, a criminal offence. You can be found in contempt of court for not going to work. And that is because capitalist liberal democracies suck ass.
Rory: They’re incredibly voluntary. It’s always a choice between, “Well, you can work or you can starve,” but in many cases you can’t even choose to starve; you will be forced to go to work or be thrown into prison.
Joel: You can work and you can starve or, if you choose an organized way to starve, we will make sure you go to work.
Kate: Disgusting society. It needs to be at least 500% better.
Kate: Capitalism is driven to profit accumulation, and the very nature of that means that shutting down production is a very powerful weapon, and it’s so powerful that governments have brought in the army to force people back to work at gunpoint during strikes. A lot of people have died on picket lines. People still die on picket lines. People have died on picket lines in North America in the past couple of years. It happens.
Rory: Yeah. I mean, if we all decided, collectively, that we are not going to go to work tomorrow — like, everyone here in the city, or the province, or the country, or whatever — it’s a perfectly voluntary and nonviolent tactic to express our displeasure or make demands, but how do you think the state would respond to that?
Kate: Super well.
Joel: [laughs] We’re too irony-poisoned. We’re just like, “Oh, great, yeah. Fun.”
Kate: The state would love it, actually.
Joel: They love it when that happens. [laughs]
Kate: They would say, “That’s super cool and good.”
Rory: It would bring things to grinding halt so quickly.
Kate: Replacement workers, or scabs, are people who cross picket lines to go to work during a strike and, frankly, they are the lowest form of life on Earth. Scab is a pejorative term for people who do this, and they are the lowest form of life on Earth because they are selling out their brothers, their sisters, their comrades, for an unfulfilled promise from their employer that will likely never come true. When people go on strike, they are doing something incredibly difficult, incredibly brave, incredibly beautiful. They are putting a lot, personally, on the line so they can fight for something for everyone, including people who cross picket lines; and when you cross picket lines, you undermine that entire effort, and you undermine the effort being done by everyone you work with. At least Judas sold out Jesus Christ for money. Scabs — what the fuck is wrong with them?
Rory: Yeah, the thing about scabbing is that you are typically working for less than the people who are on strike were being paid.
Kate: I would rather die than cross a picket line. My own dying mother could be on the other side of a picket line and she would be like, “Kate. Do not cross.”
Joel: The thing about scabbing is that you’re banking on a particular outcome — basically, that the strike doesn’t work, or doesn’t win — and you’re also setting yourself up for poor working conditions in perpetuity because, clearly, the employer you’re going to work for doesn’t really have much respect for organized labour.
Kate: A lot of scabs are actually really surprised when employers treat them badly, when employers refuse to pay out overtime and are cruel and disparaging to them. Not that anyone deserves those things, but when you cross a picket line, you can’t be surprised when a boss treats you really, really badly. The other thing about scabbing is that, no matter the outcome of a strike, you are going to have to go back into work with those people, and, the truth is, those people are never going to trust you again, and they are never going to love you like they love each other. And that is because being on strike is so difficult, there are so many consequences to it, that doing it with other people — you will love those people for the rest of your life, and people who scab will not get to be a part of that. They will simply not be liked. This isn’t even really because of any kind of conscious retaliation on behalf of the workers, it’s just — you were not there when things were really difficult. You did not participate in winning this victory with us, and you are simply never going to be a part of that. And it will make your working life incredibly difficult. So, save yourself from that: don’t cross a picket line, never be a scab, etc, etc.
Rory: Your coworkers will not come to your retirement party if you scab, and you probably won’t have a pension anyway because you helped defeat the strike to save the pensions.
Kate: True story.
Joel: Surely, employers — even with a strike — have a great respect for their employees, even if they’re on a picket line, and would never resort to any kind of intimidation — or, dare I say, violence — right, Kate?
Kate: So, a really common tactic of intimidation that employers will use on picket lines is they’ll have someone from management or from human resources come out and photograph everyone who is on the picket line and take down names. So, you are acutely aware, when you’re standing on a picket line, that management knows exactly who is on strike and who is onsite. And that can be an intimidation tactic because, especially if you’re a leader, you can be singled out for discipline, abuse, intimidation, by management. Violence is comparatively less common than it used to be, but people get hit by cars on picket lines still. It is more common than you would think. But, truly, the most common type of intimidation is financial intimidation in terms of fines that are levied by the courts. These can be really, truly intimidating to workers, to be facing thousands and thousands of dollars worth in fines, especially if you’re a member of the working class — you probably don’t have a ton of capital sitting around with which to pay these fines — and the law, in that way, is used to intimidate workers. That can also look like serving workers with contempt of court on the picket lines. Remember, if you get served with contempt of court on the picket lines, that is the what the burn barrel is for.
Rory: Yeah. I mean, as a general rule, the law — particularly in Alberta — is slanted very heavily in favour of employers. The labour board will move very quickly to examine petitions by the employer and approve them and take a very long time for unions, so it’s designed to make it as difficult as possible to legally go on strike and then to win it.
Kate: You can get a strike declared illegal at the labour board in Alberta in a matter of hours pretty easily. In order to get, say, a worker who was unfairly fired from their job for being a union activist their job back takes months, sometimes years, at the labour board.
Rory: Yeah, I know somebody who went through that, and it took him about a year. And even then, the company kept firing him afterwards.
Joel: It’s almost like the labour board has a certain set of priorities and it’s not necessarily those of workers. Weird.
Kate: The labour board is fake and bad.
Kate: And I don’t believe it’s real. And when they pass laws and say we have to do things, I simply ignore them.
Rory: And then, if you’re not unionized and you face unfair dismissal, you have to hire a lawyer and spend thousands of dollars out of pocket to win even a slam-dunk case, because there’s no real enforcement — your employer can do all kinds of illegal stuff to you, and the only way it’s enforced is you have to hire a lawyer. At least if you’re in a union, there’s grievance processes, but even then, the labour board moves fairly slowly.
Joel: So, we’ve spoken a bit about the labour board and what its priorities are. Is the labour board the only thing that can really crack down, from a legal perspective, on striking workers, or is there anything else that might happen?
Kate: So, the next step that would be taken in the even of an illegal strike is to have that strike declared illegal at the level of the courts. This sounds like really boring mumbo-jumbo, but it’s actually really important because, once a strike is declared illegal at the level of the courts, it basically really widens the range of possibilities available to the employer — or, more realistically, the state — for what can be done to the union or to the workers on strike. That allows them to have injunctions declared against picketing — and that can happen during a legal strike, too — it could allow you to say that every single worker who is on strike can be arrested, it could allow you to seize the assets of the union that was encouraging, or had endorsed, any type of illegal strike. But it basically really widens the possibility — in a legal sense; those possibilities always existed for the state — of what they can do to workers who are on strike. But I want to really emphasize, here, that even if the court says something, or the state says something, that doesn’t mean that the power that you have from going on strike goes away. A great example of this is actually Albertan, and it’s the 1988 nurses’ strike, and they decided that they were going to declare the strike illegal. They declared the strike illegal, and they declared that they were going to start arresting nurses that were on strike, and nurses started showing up in large groups to police station detachments and saying, “I’m a nurse, I’m on strike, and I understand that makes me a criminal, and I’m here to be arrested,” and they stopped that policy pretty quickly because they realized they literally didn’t have enough room in the jail cells to hold all the nurses that were on strike. So, just because they say something is going to happen doesn’t mean it’s realistically enforceable if you are able to still leverage the power of going on strike. If you just still refuse to go back to work, that power doesn’t go away, especially if the strike is large enough or is in a crucial enough juncture. They can’t replace all the nurses in Alberta, to go back to the 1988 example. It is a literal impossibility. That means you have an extraordinary amount of power to negotiate.
Rory: Yup. And, often, part of going on an illegal strike and then winning is, usually part of the negotiation in the back-to-work agreement involves — there will be no legal consequences for anyone who participated.
Kate: Yeah. And there will be no discipline from the employer for anyone who participated. And, honestly, even strikes that are not particularly successful almost always — though it’s not guaranteed — secure a back-to-work agreement.
Joel: So, more generally, why are strikes important? Why are they important in a general political or social sense, and do strikes have an importance for people beyond those specifically working at the striking workplace?
Kate: The first answer that I would have to this question is that striking is a muscle — you need to practice using it regularly or it is going to atrophy. Strikes teach people that they have power and that they can win, and if you don’t do that regularly, you will forget how to do it. There is a lot of experiential knowledge that comes with striking — so, industries where people regularly go on strike are going to have more strikes; industries with traditions of labour militancy and strikes are going to have more strikes, and so are the workers in those industries and fields, and they are going to have that practice, that experience, and that knowledge, because going on strike is scary, and if it’s it new and you’ve never done it before, it is that much scarier. It’s a hard thing to do, even if you’ve done it five times before and you know exactly what it’s going to be like. So, developing a practice and a culture of being a union and a workplace where, like, “We strike to win things, and that’s just how we do things here” is extremely, extremely important.
Rory: Striking teaches people that they have power and they can win. I mean, the reason why you’re constantly told that strikes are bad and you shouldn’t do it is because they’re really powerful. You have situations where public sector unions, or other unions, will actually pride themselves on how little they go on strike. If you do have to go on strike, it is going to be unpleasant and uncomfortable and that sort of thing, and you probably would prefer just to strike another bargain and continue at your job without any kind of interruption, but the thing is — we end up internalizing this idea that we should avoid strikes at all costs.
Kate: Yeah. This is a quick note, but trade unions have to stop talking about strikes as a last resort. Strikes are not a last resort; strikes are our most powerful tool and honestly, at the end of the day, the only one that really works. Every single time you go into bargaining, you have to be prepared to go on strike or you are going to get fucked by your employer, and that is just the truth of it. If you want something badly enough, you have to be prepared to go on strike to get it. And, oftentimes, it is true that the very credible threat of a strike will force the employer or the government to agree to something, but that is also only true if you have a history of striking. You have to have a way of making that threat credible.
Joel: Something that I think is important about strikes, and labour action more generally, is that they teach people a kind of self-conception that is otherwise unavailable to most people in society. Most of the time, people think of themselves in terms of being a consumer or being a taxpayer or being a citizen or being a voter, and none of those necessarily, or ever, put that person into a conflict or illustrate that that person might be in conflict with other interests in society, whereas when a strike or labour action occurs, that immediately becomes very, very clear. Your vision of what your workplace should look like, of what society should look like more generally, is very different from the vision that your boss or your employer or the company or the state has, and those competing visions clash, usually at the picket line. And so — in a general sense, but also in a very subjective sense — it is a very important thing to learn about what is actually going on in society.
Rory: Yeah, and the strike also shows that — as Joel mentioned about being a consumer or taxpayer — this is kind of a universal subject in society, that we’re all these things and share this kind of equality of being —
Kate: We are all liberal democratic subjects.
Rory: Yes, exactly. But when you get on the picket line, you discover there is an enormous material differences between you and your employer, and difference of interests, in the sense that your employer has an interest in reducing your wages and benefits, increasing your working hours, in order to increase their profits. But you, obviously, have an interest in that not happening, or getting better wages or more reasonable hours, or that sort of thing. And then you get to see that this is the foundation of society in terms of: where do we spend a third of our waking hours? It’s at work, and this is how our entire society is built on this relationship, and it’s a relationship fundamentally in conflict, that is really made bare when you’re on strike.
Kate: Also, being in conflict with a certain group of people forges really strong bonds with other people who are in the category of worker with you. And I know this to be true, and I think anyone who’s ever done any kind of political action that has any kind of high stakes or stress or risk involved knows this to be true, because when you do those things with people, you will love them for the rest of your life. You will develop extremely sudden, extremely strong feelings of camaraderie for these people, and you will learn through this process that some people are your comrades and some people aren’t. So you’re not only developing a relationship of conflict, but you are also developing a relationship of unity and solidarity and camaraderie with the people who form your class, and I think that is equally as important as that relationship of conflict. The other thing that’s really important about striking as a muscle, and going on strike regularly, is that, sometimes, you lose. Sometimes you go on strikes and you lose. Sometimes it was because the line wasn’t strong enough. Sometimes it’s because your employer, or the state, was just willing to go to incredibly extreme lengths in order to break that strike. Sometimes strikes are sold out by union leaders. Sometimes the strike collapses for whatever reason. And if you only go on strike once every 20, 30 years, that loss is going to be catastrophic; it is going to seem like it is the rejection of the strike as a political weapon. But, if you go on strike regularly — let’s say every couple of years, striking is something is something that happens to you in your working life — then, yeah, when you lose every so often, if you lose one out of every four strikes, it’s bad, it’s a lesson, but it is not a rejection of the strike as a political tool to be used, it is simply a loss in the battle that is class war, right? And I also think, too, losing is just practice for the next strike. If you lose, you can assess why you lose, and then, next time, you can win. And one last thing about this, which is that, even if you lose on your formal demands, you can still win in a larger sense because even an unsuccessful strike will scare the shit out of your employer, out of the state, out of the government — and that is leverage that can be used to delay bad thing happening to you, to get things you want. And then, next time you say, “If we don’t get this, we go on strike,” your employer is going to be like, “Okay, well, they did go on strike.” It gives you some leverage in the future. And if you don’t do anything, it is a guarantee that you will lose. If you are a worker and you don’t go on strike for something that you want or a demand that you have, or you are not willing to credibly threaten it, there is a 100% chance that you will lose. Strikes are not guaranteed, they are not always successful, they do not always win, but at least you have a fighting chance of winning. And I, personally, I would rather fight and lose than roll over and die.
Rory: Yup. The certainty of defeat or the possibility of defeat.
Kate: If you’re a public sector employee and you’re at risk of getting contracted out, do you want to lose your job in a meeting room where your manager says, “Thanks for your service, there’s nothing we can do, don’t let the door hit you on the way out,” or do you want to lose your job on a picket line? If those are the two options, don’t you want to fucking fight? Just something I think about. On behalf of everyone here at The Alberta Advantage, I hope you enjoyed some general advice about strikes, and we’ll see you on the picket lines.
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