In 1912, a little over 100 years before this decade’s strike wave, textile workers in Lawrence, Mass. went on strike for over two months to demand higher wages. The strike, which quickly engulfed the entire town and swelled to over 10,000 participants, was primarily led by immigrants and women; it remains one of the most significant displays of militant labor organization in U.S. history. Although the workers didn’t end up achieving all of their demands, the Lawrence textile strike was just one example of the type of militant mass action that characterized the early labor movement.
Through organizing, worker unions were able to achieve the minimum wage, the eight-hour workday, an end to child labor and countless other victories that we take for granted. Strikes were incredibly frequent and often very violent from the late 1800s through the World Wars. Starting in the 1980s, however, there was a massive drop off in the frequency of work stoppages. This can be attributed to increased union bureaucratization, government suppression of the radical left in the ‘70s and the intensely pro-business, anti-labor policies of the Reagan administration in the ‘80s. Whatever the cause, strikes fell out of practice in favor of collective bargaining, and militant labor seemed to become a thing of the past. That is, until recently.
While the 2010s began with relatively few work stoppages nationwide, by 2018 record numbers of workers have been going on strike in America. Over 500,000 workers were involved in work stoppages in 2018, and that number has continued to rise in 2019. This groundswell of militant labor action has quickly turned the 2010s from more of the same into the decade of the strike.
Public school educators have been vital in this movement. This most recent strike wave began in traditionally red states, states that went for Trump in the 2016 election. The February West Virginia teacher strike, shut down every single public school in the state while teachers rallied at the state capitol. Rank-and-file disobeyed union bureaucrat orders to return to work, and instead initiated an illegal wildcat strike, which lasted until March, when teachers finally won a 5% pay raise.
These strikes, however, extended beyond just demands for higher pay. In Oakland, striking teachers took on not just insufficient pay but also school privatization, rising class size ratios and racialized harassment targeted against students. The Oakland strike lasted seven days and saw teachers picketing side-by-side with students. Additionally, teachers and volunteers were able to set up interim schooling and lunches to help provide for the many students in Oakland who rely on schools for a place to go during the day and for their lunch. The Oakland teachers strike, as well as many other teachers’ strikes across the country, demonstrated how workers were able to collectively organize outside of conventional political channels and fuse demands for better working conditions and compensation.
It’s important to note that, contrary to the traditional view of labor unionism being the domain of white, male-dominated industries, these recent strikes have largely been in traditionally female-dominated professions, such as teachers, hotel workers and nurses. Similar to the Lawrence strike in 1912, women — especially immigrant women and women of color — have been instrumental in organizing the 2010s labor strikes. The Marriott Hotel strikes and record-breaking Battery Wharf Hotel strike in Boston, which lasted nearly two and a half months, didn’t just win protections for healthcare, but also explicitly carved out protections for immigrants and women. These strikes inspired work stoppages at Marriotts across the country, where workers won similar victories.
The threat work stoppages pose has even been used to influence government operations. When the government shut down for 35 days from 2018-2019, air traffic controllers were able to pressure Congress into reopening the government after just 10 workers called out. While officially striking is illegal for federal employees, this extremely small disruption was enough to completely freeze air travel.
When workers organize together to disrupt the status quo, they completely undermine the supposed supremacy of traditional institutions. Strikes this decade have proven the threat of work stoppages remains the most potent tool that the working class has to actualize their collective power. By coming together, workers have been able to achieve demands for economic security and social justice, and influenced the operations of our government. Rather than sitting by and waiting for elections or contract negotiations, striking workers have been able to completely flip the script and ignore the conventional rules of politics. This is an upward trend, and if it continues, the 2020s will be an unprecedented decade for working people, who are once again realizing just how powerful they really are.
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Zoey Turturino is a contributor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.