Lessons from Chicago Movers’ Six-Month Strike

After nearly two years of organizing and a grueling six-month strike, in February workers at Golan’s Moving and Storage in Skokie, Illinois, ratified their first contract. Photo: Arise Chicago.

After nearly two years of organizing and a grueling six-month strike, in February workers at Golan’s Moving and Storage in Skokie, Illinois, ratified their first contract.

The movers organized with support from the worker center Arise Chicago, and voted in December 2013 to unionize with Teamsters Local 705. They were fed up with daily abuses, stagnant pay, and rampant wage theft.

Workers were forced to show up before 6:30 a.m. to load the company’s trucks—but only got paid for the hours they worked after reaching the customer’s house. The company regularly deducted $500 for “training costs” from workers promoted to foreman or driver positions. Fines for small infractions siphoned even more money out of paychecks.

After the union vote, Golan’s followed a familiar strategy: it sought to blunt the union’s appeal with fresh raises and new perks, and at the same time did its best to drag out negotiations. If a year goes by with no contract, the window reopens to challenge union recognition and call for a new election.

But rather than try to soldier through the company’s attrition strategy, the new union struck on July 28, right in the midst of the busy season. Eighty-two out of 100 employees joined the picket line.

Six months later, Golan’s workers emerged with a first contract and a long list of lessons for other new organizing campaigns. Here are a few.

STRIKE SMART

Strikes are rare in today’s labor movement, and long strikes rarer still. Golan’s workers went on offense.

But they were smart about it. Before hitting the picket lines they amassed a pile of unfair labor practice charges against the company, giving them legal protection against being permanently replaced.

To shore up their claims before the labor board, union negotiators deliberately engaged in lots of written back-and-forth. They banked on the fact that the company’s spokesperson—more practiced at breaking union drives than at negotiating—would employ heavy-handed tactics. This proved true.

Can They Do That?

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KEEP FOLKS TOGETHER

Even when a union wins a long strike, it’s often a hollow victory: only a handful of strikers return to their old jobs, because most have long since been forced to find work elsewhere—especially now that many working people are not just broke, but heavily in debt. In that case the union has to rebuild almost from scratch.

But this wasn’t the case at Golan’s. Of the 65 yes votes for a union, 50 walked back in the door at the strike’s end. One way the union had prepared to keep workers together through the campaign was by paying strikers.

Teamsters Local 705 has its own strike fund, established in the early 2000s after a decade of strikes in the union’s core sectors, like freight and UPS. The fund explicitly covers strikes for recognition and first contracts. So the Golan’s strikers weren’t going to be penniless after a few weeks on the picket lines.

Allocating daily strike pay—$50-$100 depending on job classification—required detailed records of picket line duty, a minimum of six hours. Strikers had to be serious about recordkeeping and holding each other accountable for participation and picket line conduct.

Golan’s workers were even able to recruit scabs to join the picket line—taking advantage of a provision that allows their local, with executive board approval, to use strike funds to compensate nonmembers who refuse to cross.

All this meant the union wasn’t forced to turn the picket line into a grim showpiece with a few symbolic stalwarts. Instead, it had plenty of picketers on hand, enough to use roving pickets, economic disruptions with customers, and other strategies to keep the pressure on Golan’s. (One fun tactic was deploying the inflatable rat or “fat cat” to aggravate the moving company’s ritziest clients.)

KEY ALLIES HELPED

Arise Chicago was an important ally throughout the strike. For example, the worker center helped mobilize hundreds of community supporters to weekend rallies. It organized testimony in front of Skokie’s board of trustees about the rampant wage theft at Golan’s, and led the push for a Cook County ordinance against wage theft, adopted in February.

As a faith-based organization, Arise Chicago helped raise awareness and build support among area religious leaders, including rabbis and Jewish civic organizations. That boosted pressure on the company’s owners, who were part of the local Jewish community.

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The worker center also amplified the union’s efforts to involve area politicians, including Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, who walked the picket line and pushed company owners to resolve the strike.

DO YOUR HOMEWORK

The connection with their congresswoman also helped the strikers unravel the company’s cheapest source of strikebreakers.

Golan’s had recruited international students to work during peak moving season under a J-1 “cultural exchange” visa. Once the strike began, more J-1 student workers were brought from around the country as unwitting scabs.

As it turned out, once the international students discovered that the on-the-job realities didn’t match Golan’s promises, strikers recruited many of them to join the picket line.

But union negotiators had also secured additional ammunition before the strike, when they’d used information requests to get copies of all the visa-holder contracts. In the fine print, they found language prohibiting J-1 student workers from being used in situations where there’s a strike or lockout.

Sympathetic student workers pressured their sponsoring organizations, several of whom broke ties with Golan’s, while Congresswoman Schakowsky hammered the U.S. State Department about the dubious value of the J-1 visa program in her district.

ANTICIPATE THEIR PLAN

Initially the company seemed intent on dragging out negotiations past the one-year mark and then running a decertification campaign.

When workers upended that plan by striking, Golan’s strategy shifted. Its new principal tactic was delaying the labor board hearings on the union’s charges against the company.

By filing counter-charges against the union every few weeks, usually for the same offenses, Golan’s dragged out the proceedings for months. These charges were often complete fabrications. For example, one strike leader was accused of trying to run over scabs with his car—at a time he was in Ecuador visiting family.

The company’s goal was no mystery: force strikers to endure a punishing Chicago winter on the picket line, and hope the weather breaks the strike.

It’s true winter picketing wasn’t as fun as the summer, when strikers had held impromptu soccer matches and chili cook-offs. But workers started reporting to picket duty with snow shovels and firewood to keep the lines strong.

KEEP FIGHTING ON THE INSIDE

The union’s final move came in February, after the labor board had found in the workers’ favor and negotiated a resolution of Golan’s unfair labor practices.

The local offered an immediate, unconditional return to work. Members were prepared to report at 6:00 the next morning.

By law, Golan’s was forced to take everyone back. More importantly, the company was forced to discharge all scabs within five days.

Managers expected strikers to return with their tails between their legs. But the union’s message was clear: workers would be ready to strike again just as soon as the busy season arrived.

Without a contract, savvy worker leaders warned the Golan’s dispatchers, the movers could legally strike over grievances. And with its semi-permanent scab workforce gone, the company knew it was vulnerable to disruptions and other inside tactics.

The day after the last scabs left, the union announced a first contract with Golan’s.

For more on your legal rights in a strike, order Robert Schwartz’s book No Contract, No Peace at store.labornotes.org.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #433, April 2015. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.
Mark Brenner is the Director of Labor Notes. He can be reached at mark@labornotes.org