Turn Up the Heat

Credit: Laborers Local 79

To scale up and tackle big goals takes time and planning. A good campaign starts small and builds.

Nothing builds union loyalty more than participating in a fight that wins. And while a single action might win a small victory, the big wins that make the biggest difference in workers’ lives will require escalating campaigns.

Your campaign should include a way for everyone to get involved—and for everyone to come up with fun tactics. It starts with low-intensity actions and turns up the heat till the boss cries “Uncle!”

That’s how factory workers who make heavy-truck suspensions in Kendallville, Indiana, managed to phase out the two-tier wage and pension system, bringing everyone up to the top tier.

It took a vigorous contract campaign that showed the company, Hendrickson International, that members were ready to strike. And in its first new contract since Indiana’s right-to-work law had taken effect, the local maintained 99 percent union membership.

It doesn’t have to be a contract campaign. You can plan an escalating series of actions over a single workplace demand, like getting management to clean up a safety hazard, rehire a beloved co-worker, or back off an unfair rule.

But whenever you do have a contract expiring, definitely organize an escalating campaign. It’s the way to flex maximum muscle and win the best deal. It’s also a golden opportunity to strengthen your union—giving your co-workers lots of chances to take active roles, sign up as members, and experience the power of collective action.


Start by identifying the pressure point that will give you maximum leverage.



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Every boss has a weak spot. Is there a bottleneck in the work flow, or a potential bottleneck? Will there be big problems if inventory items don’t arrive on time? Does management rely on workers’ willingness to work overtime? Is image in the community crucial? Does the boss hate publicity? Do clients need continuous coverage from 9 to 5?

All those situations create ways to produce a mini-crisis that will make the boss more receptive to your suggestions. What if everyone took their break at the same time? What if all the workers in shipping and receiving were suddenly off their game? What if teachers called in sick on standardized-testing day?

In a contract campaign, often the peak you are building towards is a credible threat to strike—but there are exceptions. Library workers in Camden County, New Jersey, last year ran a contract campaign that climaxed not with a strike, but with something else that struck fear into their employer’s heart: no one signed up to “volunteer” for the annual book sale.

“Management was pretty shocked,” said Joanne McCarty, a clerk. “We sent a clear message that they can’t run this place without us.” At the next mediation session, the county agreed to increase minimum pay from $8.92 per hour to $15. And in the course of this campaign, union membership rose from 65 to 93 percent.

Why Escalate Gradually?

  • TAKE THE HIGH ROAD. By starting small, you show you are reasonable and credible. You did try asking politely.
  • IT BUILDS YOUR GROUP. If you start off with low-intensity actions, members who have never done anything before will be more likely to participate. As you escalate, make sure not to leave people behind.
  • THERE’S STRENGTH IN NUMBERS. If you start with risky actions and only a few people participate, the boss might single them out. With a few illegal disciplines, management can teach a lesson: stick your neck out and get burned.
  • EACH ACTION HAS A GREATER IMPACT THAN THE ONE BEFORE. As your actions get more and more intense, managers begin to understand that you mean business. You also keep them guessing. When supervisors get flustered and make mistakes, the balance of power shifts in your direction.
  • DON’T PLAY YOUR ACES TOO SOON. If you do your worst first, there’s nowhere for your campaign to go but down. It’s more effective when managers can see there’s a lot more to come—and there’s still time to save themselves a headache by giving in.


Don’t bring out your big guns right away. Start with an easy activity, like answering a survey, signing a petition, or wearing a button.

These mild activities allow you to double-check how widely and deeply felt the issue is, and form a network of activists who can lead their co-workers through the next steps.

If you don’t achieve your goal through Step One, try something that’s a bit harder and that pushes the boss a bit more. Plan your steps in advance, so you can move smoothly from one to the next and aren’t scrambling for new ideas at a crisis point.

Along the way you’re likely to use some tried-and-true tactics, like bargaining surveys, rallies, informational pickets, or weekly T-shirt days to show unity. Other tactics can be unique to your shop—encourage your co-workers to brainstorm creative ideas!

At the Kendallville truck plant, members displayed signs in their car windows. On a certain day a few volunteers occupied the management parking spots, so that managers would have to walk through the whole parking lot and see everyone’s signs. And as the strike deadline drew near, workers hauled burn barrels in their trucks to show they were ready to hit the picket line.



Visualize your escalating tactics by arranging them on a thermometer, with each action “hotter” than the last. Here are the steps the Kendallville truck plant workers took to defeat two-tier, beginning from the bottom:

  1. Set a strike deadline
  2. Held their own shift meetings, on the clock
  3. Hauled burn barrels in their trucks
  4. Conspicuously circulated a strike petition
  5. Put signs in their cars and parked in management's spaces
  6. Showed up en masse to bargaining
  7. Held T-Shirt Tuesdays and sticker days
  8. Invited everyone to a bargaining workshop
  9. Surveyed members to develop demands

You’ll find the same escalating pattern if you scratch the surface of just about any successful strike. Gradually increasing the intensity keeps participation high. At an industrial laundry in La Crosse, Wisconsin, the first contract campaign under right to work kicked off with a multilingual potluck meal to discuss demands at a Hmong community center, so that the large number of Hmong workers in the shop would be included from the beginning. Activities grew from there, culminating in a 45-minute walkout—the first in UE Local 1121’s history—joined by every worker. And the local retained nearly 100 percent membership.

Even Arizona teachers, who seemingly burst onto the scene this spring with their statewide walkout, had in fact spent months building up to it, beginning with easier activities like wearing red T-Shirts on Wednesdays and sharing selfies on social media. Collective action builds unity and confidence.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #472. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.