how to fight and win: five things i've learned (thoughts while waiting for the results of a ratification vote)

Story about the strike here
Our bargaining unit has reached a tentative agreement and we have returned to work while we await the results of a ratification vote. 

We didn't get everything we wanted, of course, but we moved the employer a long way, far more than we would have gotten without taking job action. Perhaps more importantly in the long run, we demonstrated our willingness to push back and our ability to stand together to make the fightback successful.

I'm hoping that by not naming the employer in this post, I'll be able to record some general thoughts without getting hauled in front of a verbal firing squad -- especially since the organization is supposedly undergoing a culture shift.

I've now been directly involved with two successful rounds of bargaining and striking. Here are some things I've learned.

1. Building a successful strike takes years.

The seeds of both strikes were planted two years earlier. Both successes were the result of two full years of internal organizing. 

In Mississauga, a group of like-minded library workers, fed up with a weak union that was practically an arm of management, planned a democratic takeover. We were elected into positions of union leadership and began re-building the union from the ground up. 

This meant becoming much more responsive to members' needs -- fighting for members' concerns and being willing to grieve whenever necessary. It meant always making time for members, and if we couldn't resolve their issue, at least listening, empathizing, and educating. It meant hugely increasing communication, democracy, and transparency. 

In those days we called this "building member engagement".

2. Unhappy workers complain. Unhappy workers who are organized fight back.

In my more recent experience, member engagement gave way to "internal organizing," and became more methodical.

The previous bargaining committee knew there was internal work to do. They weren't happy with the outcome of bargaining, but they also knew that members would accept it -- that there was no appetite to do otherwise. This was before my time with this employer, but I understand they got to work immediately after ratification. 

In 2020, a group of librarians from the bargaining unit attended a week-long labour education event, part of the CLC Winter School. The BCGEU called the course Organizing Academy, and it was based on the work Jane McAlevey. Along with several other GEU bargaining units, we learned a step-by-step process to build worker power.

Since that time, we have remained in close touch about workplace issues -- for mutual support, guidance, feedback, planning, griping, building. Together, we attended Skills To Win, a virtual course sponsored by the University of California, Berkeley, Labor Center, taught by McAlevey herself, and attended by more than 500 activists all over North America. With that, we added a few more member to our core team.

Over two years, we engaged in internal organizing, using the methods we learned, plus our own understanding of our context. 

This is what built our strike.

3. Striking is transformative. The wins gained in the collective agreement are only the beginning.

It's very satisfying to win a better wage increase or language that improves working conditions. But I believe the most important takeaway from a successful strike is workers learning that they can do this. We don't have to say yes to whatever crumbs the employer offers. Striking is scary, but it doesn't kill you, and it can lead to great things. Workers learn the particular joy of solidarity, of walking the picket line together. (An unsuccessful strike, one that drags on and ends in defeat -- that's a different story, and I can't attest to what that leads to.)

Both of these strikes were firsts for the bargaining units. In both cases, the employer thought our members would never vote to strike, then that we'd never actually walk out, and again that we wouldn't be able to hold out for a better offer. Wrong on all counts! Presumably, then, the employers learned, too -- and that knowledge will exist on both sides of the table during future rounds of bargaining.

Striking is also personally transformative. Many members attested to the lasting impact of striking on their own confidence and worldview.

4. Bargaining and job action are a crucible for leadership.

I learned more about how to lead -- about my own strengths, and especially my own challenges and weaknesses -- during bargainng and striking than from any other experience in my life. Both filled me with pride and joy, and also brought painful lessons and some lasting regrets. Leaders must have the courage to get their ass kicked, learn, move on, and get it kicked some more.

5. If your union discourages you from job action, you need a new rep, new leadership, or a different union.

Support from the larger parent union is crucial for success. Strike pay is only the beginning. Logistical support, media and publicity, reaching out to the house of labour for picket line support, organizing solidarity events -- this is vital to a successful job action. Everyone wants to avoid striking if at all possible, but a strong union isn't afraid to take job action, and knows how to support members who are willing to walk. 


pminer40 said...

This is so awesome to see this. I am going to include a copy if it is okay with you for every Union orientation I give. Thank you!

With God's Help said...

I hope this piece will be inspiration to those who need it. Thank you for your fearleas leadership ✊🏻

laura k said...

pminer40, thank you so much, please share as much as you want. And ask everyone to read "No Shortcuts". :)

WGH thank you for your steadfast support. ❤️✊🏻

Amy said...

I am impressed by the courage and determination of you and your co-workers, making that brave decision to go on strike. And I'm so glad it has ended well!

laura k said...

Thank you Amy!

pminer40 said...

Thank you, I love it even more every time I read it, it is so inspirational.

laura k said...

Oh my goodness, you've made my day. Some folks have asked me to flesh this out with more detail. I'm happy to do that. Cheers.