Community: Who Else Owns It?

Three picketers at the UTLA strike in January 2019.

By working with allies we can benefit the whole community and build a powerful coalition for the future. Photo: Joe Brusky.

Unions can’t win big if we’re an isolated minority. Strikers need allies for much-needed moral support, and practical support.

Allies lend credibility that can be critical to undermining the boss’s case—for instance, you need Catholic clergy on your side when you strike a Catholic hospital; you need students and parents to back a school strike.

The boss loses money when shoppers stay away. Mass picketing by allies can provide legal cover for workers from other unions to honor your picket lines.

But more than all that, by working with allies we can benefit the whole community and build a powerful coalition for the future.

And the converse is true: we can’t expect anyone to pick up a bucket when our house is on fire, if we sat back and watched while the neighborhood burned down around us.

START LONG IN ADVANCE

Ideally your union will have been working with allies for years before the strike—and not just by contributing to United Way and Little League. Then calling for help in your hour of need will be a natural.

Does your union participate in community coalitions that fight the local bad guys? Are you seen as part of the solution, not the problem? If your plant is a polluter, for example, do you work with environmental groups to try to save the lungs of everyone around? Is your union hall open for community groups to use? Do you support other unions when they go on strike?

If members are in public service, are you vocal and visible about improving those services? The public needs to know that long lines are not the fault of the first person they see at the DMV, and that transit workers share their frustration over subway delays.

Rank-and-file activists in the Chicago Teachers Union naturally allied with parents who, like them, were fighting to stop school closings. After these teachers won leadership of the local, they formalized those alliances with a “community board” and invited in neighborhood organizations.

The union issued a report on “The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve,” with community input, and shifted its campaign from defense to offense. Together with neighborhood groups, it held town hall meetings, leafleted at train stations, and organized rallies. During their 2012 strike, part of members’ picket duty was to canvass surrounding neighborhoods to shore up support. Two-thirds of parents supported the strike, and the union won.

If you don’t have these longstanding relationships, the least you can do is start building them a year before your potential strike. Do all of the above, humbly, with the added message that your employer is doing X bad thing right now, and you think you’re going to need help.

A union can invite the public to observe bargaining sessions, as teachers in St. Paul did with parents and community groups. They set bargaining for 5 p.m. and took advantage of Minnesota’s open meeting laws that forbid closed-door bargaining in the public sector.

The union set up study groups for parents and teachers and together they came up with common priorities: over-testing and class sizes. When management walked out of bargaining, parents shared members’ outrage. As the campaign escalated to the brink of a strike, they joined teachers in informational pickets at every school.

How Allies Can Help

  • Join the picket line.
  • Speak at the picket line or a rally.
  • Tell managers you're taking your business elsewhere.
  • Talk to neighbors, or customers. Ask them to do what you’re doing.
  • Put up a lawn or window sign.
  • Donate money or food.
  • Lend facilities and supplies. A big union can let a small union use its hall and turn over copy machines and restrooms.

FIND NATURAL ALLIES

Some community organizations are already built for solidarity, and unions should seek them out. Jobs with Justice, which has swelled picket lines for decades, is a natural in many areas.

When mostly Latino immigrant Teamsters at Golan’s Moving and Storage in Skokie, Illinois, struck for six months, the union reached out to Arise, a faith-based worker center, which mobilized hundreds of community supporters to weekend rallies, organized testimony in front of Skokie’s board of trustees about rampant wage theft at Golan’s, and pushed successfully for a county ordinance against wage theft.

Arise built support among religious leaders, including rabbis and Jewish civic organizations. That boosted pressure on the company’s owners, who were part of the sizable Jewish community.

You may want to ask allies to set up a solidarity committee that will start before the strike and last as long as it does.

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CHOOSE THE RIGHT DEMANDS

If you want community support, your strike should benefit the community. It’s sometimes called “bargaining for the common good.” That’s easiest and most essential for public sector workers, who should always be looking for ways to improve services.

More jobs, to serve clients better, is only the most obvious demand. Get creative—how would you shorten those DMV lines? When Seattle teachers struck in 2015 they demanded to bring back kids’ recess.

Public workers will have to counter management’s narrative that pits them against taxpayers. They can bust the myths about “exorbitant” pay and pensions, and argue that if the state looks broke, it’s because the money’s in the wrong hands—and then crusade to tax the rich. But ultimately those talking points won’t be as important as whether community members see public workers as their allies and friends.

Private sector workers, too, can make demands that help the public. They can deal with their workplace’s direct impact, such as pollution. During a 2015 strike, oil refinery workers highlighted safety hazards—which were dramatized when an explosion blanketed nearby homes with dust.

Unions can make demands that help consumers. For instance, food service workers at American University teamed up with students to campaign for “Real Food, Real Jobs.” They demanded whistleblower protection to speak up about food quality or waste; training to cook from scratch; and full-time jobs, which would be needed if they stopped using prepared foods as shortcuts.

Students gathered petition signatures and marched with workers on their boss. The workers won all three demands—and their economic ones too.

Another approach for private sector works is to frame your demands in a way that anyone could see the justice of. Grocery workers in Oregon and Washington, building toward a possible strike this fall, highlighted the dramatic gender pay gap at the Fred Meyer chain with the slogan “Time’s up!”

In 2018 Marriott hotel strikers fighting for better wages proclaimed “One Job Should Be Enough!” The same issue resonated in 1997, when UPS Teamsters struck with the slogan “Part-Time America Won’t Work!”

But note: A righteous message isn’t enough. You need leverage. In the private sector, shaming your employer and invoking the common good should be in addition to, not instead of, walloping your boss in the wallet. (See here.)

Start at the Roots

Often we think alliances start at the top. Members are an overlooked resource. But after all, nobody is just a worker. We’re also community members, parents, people of faith, and involved in many different kinds of organizations.

Early on, survey to identify members’ existing relationships. Ask about sports teams (kids’ and adults’), neighborhood associations, fraternities and sororities, PTAs, active religious affiliations, civic organizations, and especially family members’ unions. Then rank-and-filers can be the ones who:

  • Set up one-on-one conversations with community leaders.
  • Ask to talk about the union’s contract fight in a community meeting or religious service.
  • Participate in coalitions, ask what support is needed, and bring requests back to the union.
  • Mobilize members for actions of other unions or community groups.

SUPPORT YOUR SUPPORTERS

Think of the customers, students, patients, or neighbors whose lives are affected by your strike. Can you ease their burden?

When Milwaukee’s city bus drivers struck in 2015, they chose a strategic time to pressure the city—an 11-day summer music festival that typically added 20,000 additional transit riders per day. But to minimize the hit on supporters who urgently needed to get somewhere, they worked with the teachers union and a church to set up “solidarity rides” offered by volunteers.

Chicago and Detroit orchestra members held free public concerts during their strikes, as a way to rally supporters and say thank you.

In Oakland 70 percent of students rely on free or reduced-price meals at school.So during the 2019 teacher strike, solidarity groups raised $170,000 to feed both teachers on the picket lines and their students. With the money raised through “Bread for Ed” phonebanking and social media, no student needed to cross the picket line to get a meal. Supporters organized nightly phonebanks to sign up volunteers for picket and food delivery shifts.

Parents, retired teachers, churches, and community groups also set up “solidarity schools.” Legally, school employees couldn’t tell parents not to bring their kids to the struck schools, but parents could talk to other parents, and they did. Only 6 percent of students attended school, which meant the district took a daily hit in its state funding.

ENCOURAGE, DON’T MICROMANAGE

Let community members be creative. Don’t micromanage—that’s not what allies do. Rather than hand out pre-printed signs, have a sign-making party where allies invent heartfelt slogans.

Allies may feel they have more leeway for bold action. Might they organize flash mobs to occupy the CEO’s space or visit his home? Could they organize guerrilla theater on the picket line? What about research to expose the CEO’s multiple homes in vacation spots? How about a “shop-in” at the bank that finances the company?

Most of these actions could be undertaken by union members themselves—but it’s more fun and effective when your allies are in on it too.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #488, November 2019. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.