Sarah Jaffe on The Power of Solidarity

necessary trouble sarah jaffe Unionist

Writer Sarah Jaffe notes that the strike is sometimes called “labor’s ultimate weapon.” And there’s a growing call for them in the time of the power of solidarity. 

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We live in a moment when politics are shifting so rapidly it can be hard to understand what’s happening each day – but what is clear is that union rights are, more than ever, under attack. 

At the same time, union rights are not the only ones in the crosshairs. And this, somewhat counterintuitively, provides the labor movement with excellent opportunities to make new allies and grow its power. 

The premise of my book, Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt, is that the 2008 financial crisis was a fundamental turning point in American politics, kicking off an era of mass protest, direct action, disruption, and change. Since the 2016 election, huge protests have amplified the work that was going on before. Women marched for their rights, union activists flooded state houses to protest attacks on collective bargaining, and immigrants have gone on strike to demonstrate their importance to the country. In a time of increasing and increasingly visible economic and social inequality, labor has a central role to play in the struggle for justice, and local unions can play a central role in turn by reviving a fighting labor movement capable of changing the direction of history. 

      I stood behind a LiUNA member holding his phone high so his mother, a veteran of the 1960s movements, could hear the announcement that, because of the solidarity of the union members and others who had come to stand by the occupation, the eviction was canceled. 


Part of a Bigger Movement

The victories for labor and for the broader society that I detail in my book came when labor saw itself as an integral part of a bigger movement. When Occupy Wall Street hit the streets, for example, union leaders and rank-and-file members joined the protests, donated money and goods, turned out for massive supportive marches. On the morning of a planned eviction of the New York City encampment, a wall of union members marched in – orange shirts for LiUNA, blue from the United Auto Workers, red for National Nurses United. I stood behind a LiUNA member holding his phone high so his mother, a veteran of the 1960s movements, could hear the announcement that, because of the solidarity of the union members and others who had come to stand by the occupation, the eviction was canceled. The protests, which brought discussion of class inequality back to the nation with the “We Are the 99%” framework, could continue. 

The One-Day Strike

When the Chicago Teachers Union went on strike in 2012, their power came from having built a base in the broader community through communication with their natural allies: public school parents. The caucus that took power in the union in 2010 had built itself up from a book club that read books about the economic crisis and the austerity policies imposed on their city, and it began immediately organizing both internally and externally, connected to the anger of parents and students. When the strike happened, “The community had a better sense than normal that we weren’t just striking over a pay raise,” Jennifer Johnson, a Chicago teacher, told me. 

The CTU used a tactic that was popularized by the Fight for $15 and OUR Walmart in order to help avert a second strike and win a groundbreaking contract that freed extra funds for the schools: the one-day strike. On April 1, 2016, the union called a one-day strike that drew community organizations, members of Black Lives Matter, and workers from around the city into a major demonstration of power that brought administrators to the bargaining table. Everyone understood that the city was with the workers. 

The one-day strike has been used to powerful effect by non-union workers, whose willingness to go out carries additional risk and has won gains for the entire working class – including minimum wage increases and sick leave policies. Recently, in response to anti-immigrant and anti-refugee policies by the Trump administration as well as local politicians, immigrant workers have also used the tactic to demonstrate their importance and power. In Milwaukee, a massive strike rallied thousands of immigrants downtown on February 13, 2017 for a “Day Without Latinos, Immigrants, and Refugees.” “Immigrant and refugee communities, and those that stand with them, are not going to be pushed into the shadows. We’re not going to let our constitutional rights to be stripped away from all of us, nor allow discriminatory laws to be legalized,” said Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of Voces de la Frontera, a community organization that organized the action.

The strike is sometimes called “labor’s ultimate weapon.” And there’s a growing call for strikes – by immigrants, by women and by the population at large. 

 Sarah Jaffe is a Nation Institute fellow and an independent journalist covering labor, economic justice, social movements, politics, gender, and pop culture. Her work has appeared in The Nation, Salon, The New York Times, the American Prospect, the Washington Post, the Atlantic, and many other publications. She is the co-host, with Michelle Chen, of Dissent magazine’s Belabored podcast, as well as an editorial board member at Dissent


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