Special thanks to Kyle Beebe, Bob Hazzard, Dhyana Colony Smith, Gary Edwards, Paul Kaessinger, and Carmen Jones for their help in brainstorming this article.
Last meeting, my local voted down a contract proposal from our second-highest income-generating client. After the vote, we started thinking about what comes next, and the question came up – would we be ready for a strike?
To be clear, no one is ever “ready” for a strike in that all preparations have been made and all resources are in place. It’s a big decision, not to be made lightly. Labor’s biggest bargaining tool is the threat of a strike, not the actual strike. If we say “we’ll strike over this” and management thinks we won’t, are we making a credible threat? The reality of labor law requires a long, multi-step process (union recognition, declarations, etc.) before a legal strike which is good because a strike is costly for all parties. Management knows that labor generates all the wealth in the organization, and without that wealth their organization will fold. Workers know employers have tools to lengthen a standoff and increase the worker’s discomfort and without earnings the workers can not pay their bills.
So, what steps are needed to make that threat believable?
You saw this coming. There will be extra expenses to the union and now need to keep individual workers supported as they advocate through sacrifice. Unions on strike will have new office costs for marketing materials (signs, banners, leaflets), picket support supplies, legal or consultant advice, and even bail for picket walkers.
If the strike lasts a long time, striking workers will also need money to cover personal expenses like food or insurance that workers on strike cannot afford. Management will likely stop payments on retirement and health care plans – money might be needed to cover those costs. As in nearly every situation in life, a beefy nest-egg would be lovely but takes preparation and foresight…and the pandemic didn’t help any Local save money. Luckily, raising money is also something supporters (the public, other unions) can help with.
Solidarity and Communication
Having support from the public, your membership, local media, the tours, and other unions will be a deal-breaker in your ability to win a strike. We can’t do it alone. As a famous Chinese proverb goes, “the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago; the second best time is now.” By the time that a potential strike is even on your radar, you will have wished you spent more time making friends. Having other unions, politicians, non-members, media, and others who owe you a favor puts you in a strong position because you will need help. Supporters can share your messaging, not cross picket lines, honk, send a letter of union-support to management, or drop off supplies. Basically, anything that boosts your morale is welcome but they’ll need someone to tell them what to do and when for maximum effect. Onlookers will gravitate toward a bigger crowd and the algorithms will need a lot of likes so invite all your friends but make sure the people at the front stick to the message.
If you let the employer get to the media first with a more compelling story, you’ve lost your public support. You’ll want a communications/marketing team ready on day 1 to sculpt the narrative and tell a clear and convincing reason for worker support.
You won’t win if your members don’t support what you are fighting for enough to lend a hand. People must show up, carry the signs, and, yes, chant the slogans. They’ll want transparency during the process, the issues, and the plan. Establish a calling tree to spread information, especially when there are rapidly changing circumstances. You’ll need an organizing team with logistics experience to make sure all these parts keep moving. Luckily theatrical employees are good at logistics.
Fun fact: entertainment employees don’t always make good negotiators! Management’s lawyers certainly have training, as do the HR staff, and you’ll want to be in an equally strong position in the process and tactics. Your union should have a handful of members who they have invested in to learn negotiation, conflict resolution, arbitration, bargaining, and contract negotiation. An easy first step is to get and distribute copies of The Negotiator’s Handbook by George Fuller. If your local does not have a skilled negotiator, find them! Borrow expertise from a neighboring local or ask the International for guidance.
Is your workforce prepared to resort to civil disobedience to be seen and heard? A well placed action can be really effective for your cause but you’ll want to have a plan for who and how.
Solidarity is key for us, which can mean understanding the other side of the table as much as possible. Bob Hazzard encourages us to “do massive research about the opposition: names, ages, church, wives’ names, kids, clubs joined, political party, car driven, hobbies… everything and anything. It leads to finding common ground and interests and reduces the us/them mentality where the contract is a win/lose contest.” Common ground is a strong tool to connect us and find resolution. The union goal must always be for the humanity of people and resist the urge to get caught up in an adversarial back-and-forth.
Consider the possibility or availability of scabs which may be ready or eager to take your place. Knowing their numbers and skill levels helps you to quantify (and therefore wield) power. Make your strike threat plausible by using the data to help the employer put the cost of delays into financial terms. It hurts the bottomline if they have to bring in out-of-state workers to replace local skilled labor.
Your union leadership (Business Agent, Financial Secretary, and Trustees) needs to be familiar with relief in the form of unemployment claims, retirement plan borrowing, suspension of benefits such as 401(k) or health insurance. Carmen Jones recommends to “have the phone numbers & locations of social services handy for those members who will have financial difficulty. Check with those institutions to see what services they can offer your members who are on strike.” If your union was smart, they probably learned about these resources during the pandemic. The more you know about the pitfalls or moving ahead with any labor action, the greater is your chance of success.
Strikes could drag on for weeks or months. Future contract gains may compensate for those losses or they might be too great for any pay raise to cover. Keep in mind your sacrifices today, if won, will cumulatively affect the future you or the people who come after. Think deeply about the cost of capitulating against the benefit of success.
If you are stuck in a strike for 6 months or more, you’re likely to be walking the line in heat, rain and cold. If the public sees your pain, they are more-likely to think it must really be worth it but it’s also much harder to find volunteers. Gary Edwards reminds us that a strike means a “willingness and commitment to freeze our asses off in the middle of winter.” You are ready to strike if your union is ready to go all-in and stick it out, as long as it takes.
The Right Mindset
Along with friends, resources, research, and patience, your union will need regular emotional support. They’ll need cheerleaders and reinforcements; they’ll need someone to remind them, when it gets hard (because there will be defeats) why they are making these sacrifices. They’ll need coaching, a good pep talk, and they’ll need art – art that fills the soul with hope.
Hope is the conviction that tomorrow will be better than today and unions, at their best, always look to a better future for all workers. If you don’t have hope, you aren’t ready.