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For some striking workers, small can be mighty

Meghan McCarty Carino Sep 14, 2023
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Jeff Kowalsky/AFP via Getty Images

For some striking workers, small can be mighty

Meghan McCarty Carino Sep 14, 2023
Heard on:
Jeff Kowalsky/AFP via Getty Images
HTML EMBED:
COPY

Pumpkin spice lattes and other autumn specialties may — perhaps regrettably — be back on menus, but the Hot Labor Summer appears to still be in full swing. The protracted strikes by writers and actors continue, and Thursday night we’ll find out if the vehicle industry is next.

Contracts between the United Auto Workers and three major automakers expire at 11:59 Eastern time. Union leaders have said there will be no extension and workers are ready to go on strike if a deal isn’t reached. It would be the first simultaneous strike at the three companies, but the union doesn’t plan to shut down all production at once. It’s planning targeted strikes at just a few key plants.

In fact, broad work stoppages that go on for months, like we’ve seen this year in the entertainment industry, aren’t very common these days.

A major strike is the biggest lever workers have when negotiations deadlock, but there are a lot of reasons a union might not want to pull it all the way, said Todd Vachon, a professor of labor studies at Rutgers.

“It kind of gives them the ability to ramp up and escalate, right? Also, it helps them preserve their resources,” Vachon said.

Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations has been tracking work stoppages of all sizes. Ph.D. candidate Johnnie Kallas said that almost half of the strikes in 2022 lasted just a day. 

“Many of those are what I would term fixed-duration strikes, where workers intended to walk out for just a short period of time and return to work unconditionally,” he explained.

That may be because the labor movement’s gains in recent years have not been made by the big industrial unions that can afford to support members on picket lines, said Nelson Lichtenstein at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

“Those unions have shrunk, whereas the service sector, retail, hospitality, that’s all boomed — gotten much bigger,” Lichtenstein said.

The unions that have spread store by store at companies like Starbucks, Trader Joe’s and REI often have just a few dozen members.

“So any strike can’t have any real economic impact on the company, but it can have a kind of demonstration effect,” he added.

Erica Smiley heads the nonprofit group Jobs with Justice. “You at least want to show that your members are ready to strike, that there’s a level of unity,” she said.

And particularly in customer-facing businesses, small strikes can bring public pressure on the employer.

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