The Strike Is Workers’ Sharpest Tool. A Resurgent Labor Movement Must Be Willing to Use It.

We have a rare opportunity to rebuild a fighting labor movement in the United States. To take advantage of it, workers must be armed with battle-tested strategies and tactics — and that means being willing to go on strike.

Demonstrators during the “Fight Starbucks Union Busting” rally in Seattle, Washington, on Saturday, April 23, 2022. (David Ryder / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

To the horror of the billionaire class, American workers are beginning to organize in their workplaces with an energy not seen in decades.

It began last fall with “Striketober,” a season of major strikes at John Deere, Nabisco, Kellogg’s, and elsewhere. Striketober was followed by a nationwide unionization drive by Starbucks Workers United (SBWU), which is still ongoing. Workers at forty Starbucks stores have won their union elections, and organizing committees have been declared in over 240 stores.

And in a historic vote at New York’s JFK8 warehouse, workers have won the first-ever Amazon union on US soil. With eight thousand workers, JFK8 is one of the biggest new unionized sites in decades. Workers at one hundred other Amazon facilities, along with workers at Walmart and Target, have since reached out to the independent Amazon Labor Union (ALU) to find out how to replicate this success in their workplaces.

The Billionaires Retaliate

In response to this wave of organizing, the bosses are going on the attack.

At Starbucks, executives are carrying out a union-busting and firing spree. Since February, at least eighteen workers have been fired for trying to unionize their stores.

The onslaught of union busting, with “captive audience” meetings and worker intimidation, has been increasingly accompanied by the cutting of employee hours, aimed particularly at worker leaders, in hopes of driving them out of their jobs. There is even a leaked recording of an all-managers meeting where executives urge store managers to accelerate the onboarding process of workers they are confident will vote against forming a union.

Former Starbucks CEO and multibillionaire Howard Schultz, who was brought back to lead this union-busting effort, said publicly that corporations were being “assaulted” by workers trying to unionize.

Meanwhile at Amazon, in the wake of the JFK8 vote, executives have initiated a legal filing against ALU in hopes of overturning the union election. They also ramped up their anti-union campaign at the second Staten Island Amazon facility (LDJ5), which began voting on April 25. Amazon’s charge is that ALU is an “outside organization” that wants to take a cut of workers’ hard-earned money in the form of dues. At LDJ5, ALU workers responded by circulating a flyer highlighting their key demands and stating, “Despite what Amazon tells you, a union isn’t some outside organization. It’s a legal recognition of our right to have a say at work as a group instead.”

Workers Take Up the Strike Tactic

In the face of attacks from the bosses, the best defense is a good offense.

In response to this offensive by Starbucks management, workers have begun striking at individual Starbucks stores. These actions have been mostly or entirely led by rank-and-file workers themselves.

In Buffalo in January, workers went on strike at the height of the Omicron wave over COVID safety issues. After five days on strike, they won a massive victory: paid time off for workers exposed to COVID, applied to all Starbucks stores nationally. This victory shows how effective strikes can be when they’re well organized with clear demands.

Another powerful example took place recently at Darwin’s Ltd., a coffee and sandwich chain in the Boston area. Workers organized for a union last fall and were granted voluntary recognition — but that hasn’t meant that the owner has simply accepted the union. Instead, management has been blatantly dragging out the bargaining process in the hopes of demoralizing workers and blocking the union after the fact.

Darwin’s United, the workers’ union, fought back. They carefully planned and organized for a short, synchronized seven-minute strike at all four store locations. Workers initiated the strike by addressing customers at each store from the inside, as you can see in this video, in which Darwin’s worker Sam White, a socialist and member of my organization, Socialist Alternative, effectively explains the reasons for their action. The video went viral, with more than 1.2 million viewers in just a few days.

The tactic proved highly effective. Darwin’s United won four more bargaining sessions in the following six weeks (after just one in the previous six weeks) along with a new disciplinary agreement including due-process requirements — a huge step forward for job security that management had ferociously resisted.

In two cities near Seattle, where I serve as a socialist on the city council, there have also been worker-led strikes in the last three weeks.

In March, in the state capital of Olympia, workers carried out a one-day strike at Cooper Point Starbucks, which I attended in solidarity. The workers were angry at hours cutting and other attacks by management, which have made it even more difficult to scrape by on the poverty wages they’re receiving. At the picket, workers explained how they understood that they had to stay and fight because quitting and going to another job is not the answer — jobs for Generation Z are abysmal all over.

Three weeks ago, in Marysville, an hour north of Seattle, Starbucks workers held a three-day strike to fight back against hours cutting and bad workplace conditions that led to two rat infestations this year. Again, my office and I participated in this strike. Workers campaigned around strong demands, talked to customers as they came up to the drive-through window, explained the reasons for their strike, and encouraged them to buy their coffee at other nearby locations.

By the third day, the store was fully shuttered, including the drive-through. Also on the third day, the workers formally announced the filing of their union cards for an election. Because they acted together, in a united fashion around clear demands, they were able to take strong, militant action even before they filed for an election.

Two weeks ago in Seattle, workers at two Starbucks stores also went on strike, including at a prominent downtown store. The downtown store workers were on strike for three days. There were some missteps: the second day’s picket started too late in the morning, leaving a window for management to keep the stores open, which they did. Nonetheless, the strikes were a major show of force in Starbucks’s hometown and Schultz’s own backyard.

Sharpening the Tool

The strike is the sharpest tool workers have to fight for their collective interests, as it exercises the power to withdraw their labor and interrupt the bosses’ profits.

Most of the major gains of the labor movement were won through effective use of the strike tactic. The successes of industrial unionism in the 1930s and 1940s, including the launch of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), was won on the shoulders of three major strikes in Minneapolis, Toledo, and San Francisco in 1934 (all led by socialists) and the historic General Motors sit-down strikes in 1936–37.

The 1970s saw a massive wave of strike action, driven in part by the rampant inflation of the period — which is again creating explosive conditions today — leading to the historic victory of a major expansion of unions into the public sector. But since then, strikes have largely fallen out of use. They’ve been low for decades, in parallel with the long decline of the labor movement.

This is not an accident but is directly connected to the rise of “business unionism” — in short, the idea that workers should quietly let labor leaders negotiate mutually agreeable contracts with the bosses (in reality they are often filled with defeats for workers) rather than actively organizing themselves. One of the hallmarks of business unionism is preventing strikes at all cost in exchange for a “seat at the table” to negotiate. Business unionists put their stress on the bargaining process. They fear antagonizing management by any real mobilization of workers, much less going on strike.

This bankrupt approach has helped lead to the lowest levels of unionization in over a century, with the private sector at only 6 percent union. We need to break with all these failed methods if we are to succeed in rebuilding a fighting labor movement. That means learning how to strike again.

But not all strikes and workplace actions are created equal — some are more effective than others. In working out best practices, we can learn lessons from strikes, organizing drives, and other workplace actions past and present.

The strike should be viewed as one key part of an overall class-struggle approach to winning gains for workers, recognizing that power in the bargaining room comes from building power outside, in the workplaces and on the streets.

To succeed in building for any workplace action, it’s vital to organize around strong demands. This is particularly crucial in a strike or unionizing effort, when workers are under fire from the bosses. Workers need to know what they are fighting for, what the union is about, and what the strike is about. As in any other workplace struggle, Starbucks Workers United’s organizing efforts could be vastly improved by the introduction of clear demands.

The leaders of the Amazon Labor Union’s historic victory at JFK8 put their demands front and center in their flyers, in their organizing meetings, and in their one-on-one conversations. They called for: $30-minimum starting pay; job security including union representation at all disciplinary meetings to protect from wrongful termination or mistreatment; abolishing Amazon’s mandatory overtime policy outside of “Peak” and “Prime” week; two thirty-minute paid breaks and an hour lunch; and real time off, including sick time, at least two weeks paid time off per year, and an end to the point system the company uses to determine unpaid time off.

These demands are concrete, clear, and have numbers attached. In contrast, when forced to agree to demands at all, business unionists strongly prefer vague demands, without numbers, or ones that are purely aspirational. This is because they don’t want a mobilized rank-and-file any more than they want a strike. When it’s unavoidable, they don’t want to be held answerable to anything concrete.

In addition to clear demands, it’s also essential to win a strong majority of workers to the strike. A strong majority does not have to mean consensus — unanimous support is unusual even in the strongest of strikes, and workers can’t be held up waiting for complete agreement. Some workers can also be won over through a dynamic strike, as happened in Marysville where a worker who did not initially join the strike did so on the third day and helped shut down the store completely.

Consensus or not, strikes should be carefully and thoroughly prepared. In West Virginia, where a historic education victory kicked off the “Red for Ed” teacher rebellion in 2018, there were many months of strike preparation, including doing community outreach and developing rank-and-file organizing committees independent of the union leadership, with a clear program of demands.

This isn’t to say that strikes can’t be quickly organized when needed. In Marysville, the strike “came together pretty much overnight,” according to rank-and-file leader Katelyn McCoy, after two baristas were forced to run the entire store on their own for over six hours — one nine-months pregnant and the other on a 10.5-hour shift without breaks. But even when strikes develop quickly, workers should work in earnest to effectively organize themselves, as Marysville workers successfully did.

Short energetic strikes are usually best. This is because the pressures of strikes on workers, including the economic burden, are very real — if the strike is not moving forward and becomes stalled, the bosses will take advantage. It can be fatal to base a strike on the “one day longer, one day stronger” approach, as the Sand and Gravel leadership did in the recent unsuccessful five-month strike in the Seattle area.

Solidarity can play a key role in the success of a strike. The bosses want workers to feel isolated when they go on strike. We need the opposite: the widest possible working-class support. That’s why we’ve helped build rallies in Seattle to support Starbucks workers here, inviting coffee workers from around the region and country to speak and building wider support in the labor movement.

Finally, rank-and-file democracy is crucial. At JFK8, the Amazon Labor Union created a broad organizing committee of dozens of workers to ensure that workers had a real say in the key decisions of the unionizing drive. This kind of structure can be highly effective in developing the best fighting tactics and building worker engagement. ALU’s constitution also has strong democratic structures, even including a requirement that all its elected officials accept an average worker’s wage — a key block on the development of bureaucracy in a union, which is in turn critical to maintaining a class-struggle approach.

Rebuilding a Fighting Labor Movement

The strike is a crucial tactic, and there’s no way that Starbucks or Amazon will be unionized nationally without workers using it. But in the process of unionizing, the strike tactic must be combined with others to build broad, grassroots, public campaigns. Mass rallies, community outreach, national days of action, and other such tactics will also be essential.

As socialists, it is our role to help chart an alternative path alongside workers who want to be part of a serious fightback, and not abandon them to the cautious methods of labor leaders who seek to negotiate unity with the bosses.

Under capitalism, working people have been taught that they should keep their heads down, that they should not be divisive, and that they should be good team players (or “partners”) in their workplaces rather than organizing directly against the bosses for the needs of their class. In an all-out fight with the billionaire class, victory or defeat can be determined by whether workers are armed with class-struggle strategies and tactics — including being prepared to withhold their labor power in the struggle for their collective interests.

A huge space has opened up to rebuild a fighting labor movement in the United States. The need could not be more urgent, and history does not offer us endless opportunities. We need to make the most of this one.