Strike First, Then Bargain

The Louvre's outside pyramid at sunset.

In the early days of the crisis in France, workers at the famed Louvre museum in Paris shut it all down till management negotiated. Jim Swanson, CC-BY-2.0, cropped from original.

Direct action gets the goods. If your employer is still not acting like workers’ lives matter, take a page from union members who are putting muscle behind their bargaining—they're shutting the place down first.

Detroit bus drivers collectively declared Tuesday morning that they weren't going to work without safety precautions. At both the city's two big terminals, they talked among themselves, told management “no way—we need protection,” and called their union.

With no drivers willing to mount the buses, service was canceled throughout the city. The mayor was called to the terminals, where drivers gave him an earful about unsafe conditions.

Their brief work stoppage, less than 24 hours, won all their demands. Fares will not be collected for the duration of the crisis, so drivers won't have to take money from riders, who will enter and exit through the buses' back doors. More cleaners will be hired, with strict cleaning protocols.


Likewise, in the early days of the crisis in France, workers at the famed Louvre museum in Paris shut it all down till management negotiated.

As France hit 100 confirmed cases, on the morning of Sunday, March 1, workers, led by members of the militant CGT union, stopped the museum from opening while they held a meeting with management.

Workers were concerned about large crowds and a lack of safety precautions. At the end of the meeting, 300 workers gathered and voted to shut the museum down.

Union representatives spent the next three days negotiating with management over the terms of reopening. Union reps proposed cutting museum attendance in half and providing workers with masks and gloves—both of which management shot down.

On Wednesday morning, workers voted to reopen, after winning several demands:

  • Workers would be given hand sanitizer.
  • Cashiers would not have to handle cash (only cards), and would interact with museum-goers only from behind glass.
  • Workers would no longer be asked to break up the crowds in front of the immensely popular Mona Lisa. This task had required attendants to wade through throngs of selfie-takers. The Louvre is the most highly-trafficked museum in the world, and Da Vinci’s painting is its biggest draw.



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Later, of course, the museum shut down indefinitely, after a government directive banned gatherings of over 100 people.

Workers at the Louvre are no strangers to strikes. Just in the last year, workers held a brief stoppage over overcrowding around the Mona Lisa during a renovation; their action led to additional staff being hired. And in January this year workers and allies shut down the museum as a part of the rolling national strikes over the government’s proposed cuts to pensions.


But workers unused to striking have taken emergency measures, too. At three FCA (Chrysler) factories near Detroit, auto workers have wildcatted. National United Auto Workers leaders had set up a joint task force with the Big 3 automakers and asked politely for a two-week shutdown, but the companies said no.

After a March 17 wildcat of workers on both shifts closed one plant completely—and, to be fair, after more reports of COVID-19 among auto workers began to surface—the three managements finally shut down (though only till March 30).

Auto workers in Spain and Italy had already used strikes to convince recalcitrant employers to close.

If you're lucky enough to have a union that has bargained good protections, great.

If not, now as always, a strike will get the boss's attention.

To join a Labor Notes webinar Thursday night about all kinds of worker organizing in the time of coronavirus, click here.

Joe DeManuelle-Hall is a staff writer and organizer at Labor Notes.
Jane Slaughter is a former editor of Labor Notes and co-author of Secrets of a Successful Organizer.