Sunday, November 15, 2009

How To Strike

There is nothing that brings more smiles to people more than seeing public servants go on strike. It seems that at least twice a year public servants in some sector decide to go on strike. And it is always with the same demands. Money. They want more money. They want higher pay, they want more benefits, they want more paid vacation, and they want more pensions. And for several reasons, they usually get more money. In the past this was not so unusual, especially given that we as a country have only decided to finally raise the minimum wage rate after a few decades. But in this economy? It takes some very large brass ones to do that. And we will see why they feel so secure in going on strike. (Hint: it is not that they have nothing to lose.)

When was the last time you heard of private sector workers going on strike? Difficult to remember, isn’t it? The last time I heard of a private sector strike was four years ago, when hospital support staff went on strike because they wanted—wait for it—more money. And they did get more money. Not as much as they demanded, but then you never ever demand what you want. You always, always demand for much more. That is Rule #1. There will always be a compromise. There has to be. That way both parties keep up the appearance that they have conceded something. It makes their own concession more palatable. But because you always ask for more than you want, your concession is really nothing, and your win is deliciously more enjoyable. And when you demand more money, there is little the other side can do to counter that other than to compromise. After all, they can’t demand more than they want because what they want is to not change anything. Demanding more for them would be to ask you to give past monies back. What a PR nightmare that would become.

And when was the last time you heard of a nonunionized group of workers going on strike? I have never heard of such a thing. That does not mean it has never happened, but certainly it suggests that it has never happened successfully. And that is Rule #2. You must strike only with a union. A union has power because there is power in numbers. This is, in fact, the major power of the union—to be able to have a large number if not a majority of current workers suddenly stop working and halt productive activity on a moment’s notice. That would cripple any large company. It is no wonder then, that Walmart and McDonald’s try so hard to prevent workers from unionizing. Also, a union has an obvious hierarchy and a clear leader and spokesperson. This protects the union because it prevents the possibly of workers getting turned against one another by the other side. Everyone accepts the majority sentiment of the union and a small compromise in their wants for the power of the collective union. There is another strength of the union, and that is securitization of wages during a strike. That means that though you are on strike, you will still get paid through the magical feedbag into which you put your union dues allowing the union to strong arm the company into agreeing to that clause in your contract. If you did not have that security, the war of financial attrition will always favor the company rather than the individual worker, and companies would simply draw out negotiations until the workers could no longer pay their mortgages.

Thinking of all the strikes you have heard about, how many have somehow affected you or someone you know? Probably even odds on that one. The purpose of any strike is to cause chaos and disrupt as much normal flow as possible anywhere. That is Rule #3. You must create chaos and involve as many bystanders as possible. In an imaginary Walmart strike, the stores operations would cease. Revenue would be loss. Management would be sad. But more importantly, customers would not be able to shop at Walmart because it would be chaos in the store—no one to stock or restock merchandise, no one to ring you up, and so on. That would make you mad, and as much as you would like to believe you could be objective about the issues with the strike, you will always blame Walmart at least a little. (Or a lot, since we are talking about Walmart) But what if it is a teacher’s strike? Teachers stop teaching, and children stop learning. But even worse, children now have to be somewhere else, and parents now need to watch them or get babysitters. This then disrupts the parents’ work schedules and income flow for families. This makes the parents mad and they get mad at both the teachers and administration and pressure for a compromise to be made. So the administration is villainized when the teachers intitiate the strike. This is the same with the SEPTA strike. Buses, trains, and other public transportation stop running. Commuters everywhere must scramble to find other ways to get to school, work, and leisure activities. This pisses everyone off. And then the public demand that the city find a way to fix the strike problem because, after all, the city government works for us, the public.

That leads us to Rule #4. Strike only against bosses who have no clear leadership. Now I did oversimplify the power of unions earlier. A union, once created, gains certain rights that protect the workers in the union. One such protection is that against wholesale termination of the workers in a union. This is why Walmart and McDonald’s have been rumored to fire all the employees and shutter stores where employees have attempted to unionize. This makes it doubly easy for civil servants to strike. Not only are they afforded the protection of the union, but the bosses against whom they strike are the most poorly organized, bureaucratically riddled system out there. If you went on strike against a stiffly hierarchal company, you likely would not have a union, so they would more than likely fire you on the spot and have your replacement hired and working before your butt hit the pavement.

But how can you increase your chances of having a successful strike? You must gather public sentiment. That is Rule #5. Fake a nobler cause or pretend you really love your job despite the obvious notion that striking means you are unsatisfied with your job. This means that when the local news crews come to interview you on the picket line, you should say, “ We want to be working and doing a great public service, but those ogres are running the equivalent of a Thai sweatshop in there.” Do not under any circumstance say, “Well, we clearly deserve far more money for the job we do but are too lazy and ignorant to find a better way utilize our talents, so we thought we would just extort the public taxpayer and the game the system to get what we want.”

While these rules have worked well in the past for the majority of strikes, we must not forget the times that it has backfired. The most notable would the air traffic controller strike in 1981. Reagan order the controllers back to work on the premise of national safety and security. The majority of the controllers refused and were subsequently fired by the President. It was a humbling time for unions. If you incorrectly assess your public circumstance, the strike may backfire. Let us take the current the recent teacher’s strike in Pennsylvania. This strike came around the time school started this year. The teachers were asking for—more money. They wanted higher salaries, better pensions, and better health insurance. What they failed to recognize (and especially the social studies and economics teachers) was that the public was still in financial jeopardy. Most people were still down 25% or more on their retirement nest eggs, taking pay cuts or were laid off, and paying higher insurance premiums. And now here come teachers, asking Joe Public to pay more taxes so that their pensions and retirements are secured while his circles their gym toilet. More taxes so that they can pay less for prescription medicines while he has to go to Canada or Mexico for generics. More taxes so they can get a pay raise while he takes a pay cut and works longer hours. Then the teachers have the gall to say to the news cameras, “We really want to be in the classroom teaching, not out here on the picket line.”? Let’s say that while the strike did end, and the teachers got more money, they more than likely did not get what the wanted. More importantly, they will not be able to strike for a while without severe public backlash. At least not until the next financial bubble is growing steadily. The same can be said of the SEPTA strike with the addition that the strike was even more poorly planned because it is heavily dependent on Rule #3. They lost all public sentiment by disrupting already somewhat disrupted work/life balances more. And on top of that, their jobs are not specialized enough to offer them protection. In 1981 the FAA managed to train enough new air traffic controllers to get half the flights back in the air. Think how easy it will be to get new bus drivers.