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Going on strike is a risk

When workers go on strike, there are no guarantees it will work out.

A man holding a picket sign saying “UAW ok strike”
Factory workers and UAW union members outside of a Ford plant in Louisville, Kentucky on October 14, 2023.
Michael Swensen/Getty Images
Emily Stewart covers business and economics for Vox and writes the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

This is Joe Travers’s second time being on strike in four years. He walked out in 2019, when the United Auto Workers undertook a 40-day work stoppage against General Motors, where he’s worked since 2015. Now, the plant he works at in Wentzville, Missouri, was among the first targeted by the UAW in its current strike against Detroit’s Big Three automakers — GM, Ford, and Stellantis. “We’re not really asking for anything that is shocking, you know?” he says of current contract negotiations.

The strike just hit the one-month mark, and nobody has any idea how long it’s going to last; he feels like people are more ready to weather the storm this time than last, or at least he is. “You just kind of prepare for the long haul and save money. I myself have opened a couple extra credit cards, just in case I need them for future use,” Travers, 30, says. Luckily, his wife is working, which helps them be able to support their two kids. The union’s strike fund covers benefits like medical and prescription drugs, and it pays striking workers $500 a week. That is, of course, much less than he normally makes.

Travers spent the previous day on the picket line, in sub-40 degree temperatures in the rain. His strike captain often brings along McDonald’s breakfast sandwiches; they listen to music and try to stay positive. “It gets cold and it sucks sometimes, but we get through it,” he says.

Headlines this summer about strikes have made it seem like it’s something that everyone’s doing, like walking the picket line is all the rage. But to go on strike is to take a risk. It means workers, collectively, taking a gamble to try to get better conditions, better contracts, and, hopefully, a better future. It’s a gamble without guarantees — there’s no way to know whether going on strike will lead to any kind of material improvement.

Strikes can and do fail. Even when they are successful, that doesn’t mean everyone will be satisfied. Travers wasn’t a huge fan of the contract his union got after their 2019 strike. “It was a hard time to ask for too much at that point, but for me, personally, I think we could have asked for more than we got,” he says. He thinks this time will be different and has faith in UAW president Shawn Fain, who recently delivered an address to union members sporting an “Eat the Rich” T-shirt. “The reward will be much greater than the risk of being short on money for a little while.”

I spoke with multiple people currently or recently on strike about the realities of life on the picket line. The picture they painted is a hopeful one but also a sober one — striking is scary and hard.

A strike is the ultimate weapon for workers. It’s also a crisis.

Strikes hurt employers — they’re also a sacrifice for employees

It can be exciting to celebrate the exercise of worker power occurring across multiple industries at the moment. It feels good to root for Main Street over Wall Street, to watch the arrival of “hot strike summer” that’s now stretching into the fall.

But some of that triumphant tone masks tough realities. Unions aren’t thriving in America, they’re declining. Work stoppages inflict economic harm on employers and employees. Workers lose pay that they don’t get back, and they can lose benefits, too.

Rob Foster, UAW chief steward at a Jeep plant in Toledo, Ohio, has been putting away money since the spring to try to prepare for his union’s strike. The self-described “shop dad” was telling others to do the same. “I always had a feeling it was going to come down to this,” he says. “I’d go around to and tell everybody, ‘Save some money, put some money away, hey, work a little extra this week.’”

Most mornings now, he drives out to the plant to pick up garbage, change out burn barrels, fill up firewood, and make sure there are tents and shelter in place to help shield workers from the cold weather. He chats with picketers to figure out what they need and see whether there’s a way the union can assist. “You’re having a hard time, you can’t feed your kids? Okay, here’s the pantry number,” he says. “Some people have a different struggle — some people can’t eat, some people can’t pay a heating bill, so you want to know where to guide them and how to help them out.”

Charles Wade, a strike captain at a Ford plant in Wayne, Michigan, has taken his bills off of auto pay so he has better control of what money goes in and out. “It really sucks, man,” he says of life on strike. He bought a house a year ago, and while he’s sure he could defer a mortgage payment or two, the situation is far from ideal. “Nobody out here really wants to strike, but we have to, it’s the only way that these guys that are up there will even listen to us,” he says. “We’re just a number for them.”

Both Foster and Wade say they’re less concerned about their own situations than they are about those of others. What about some of the younger people in the plants, who are making less than they are? What about the temporary workers who are doing the same work but being compensated differently? What about retirement, but also, what happens now that the holidays are on the horizon?

“Luckily, my kid is old enough that it’s like, ‘You know what dad is? Broke, bro,’ and he’s cool with it, right? But with these kids that are little, that’s just where it gets scary for that,” Wade says.

“You’ve got Christmas right around the corner. Everybody wants to spend that money and make their kid just the happiest, they want to do whatever it takes,” says Foster, a father of three himself. He worries the pressure might lead some workers to lose their resolve and ultimately impact negotiations — there’s a reason he was so emphatic people needed to be prepared for the long haul.

Of course, less-than-stellar economic conditions are why workers often strike in the first place. In the case of UAW workers, they feel they gave up too much ground during the financial crisis and 2008-2009 recession and that they haven’t fairly shared in their employers’ profits since then. They point to their companies’ CEOs’ pay compared to their own.

Actors currently in the midst of the SAG-AFTRA strike say that the economic realities they were forced to navigate well before the work stoppage happened have prepared them to deal with the economic difficulties of striking. Darsan Solomon, an actor of Victorious and Community fame, was doing DoorDash already because the residuals on his shows from streaming were so low. “I used to laugh every now and then and be like, ‘Oh, I got a 2-cent check, oh, I got a 5-cent check,’” he says. “What we had before wasn’t worth it.”

There are often funds to help support striking workers, and communities rally around them, too, to donate basics like food and toiletries. That alleviates some pain, but not all of it. “I find in my years of experience that [striking] is one of the most difficult decisions that workers and their families have to make,” says Mary Kay Henry, international president of the Service Employees International Union. “Deciding to give up a paycheck is an incredibly courageous and brave decision in this economy.”

Striking isn’t just financially taxing

The financial burden of a strike is tough to navigate, from deciphering how to pay rent to how to buy diapers. But it’s emotionally and physically taxing as well. In California, it’s hot on the picket lines. In the Midwest, it’s getting cold. The whole thing is full of ups and downs, of fits and starts, and of attempts to keep morale up when energy starts to wane.

Racheline Maltese, a New York-based SAG-AFTRA strike captain, has calculated that a three-hour picket line adds up to about 30,000 steps of walking. They picket outside of Paramount in Times Square about three times a week. “We knew it was going to be bad and every day we know it’s going to be hard, but the solidarity has been really incredible,” they say, noting that even tourists express support when they walk by.

After Hollywood’s writers, who went on strike in the spring, reached an agreement with the studios in late September and got back to work, there was hope among actors that the end was in sight. But talks between actors and the studios broke down in mid-October, and optimism has waned once again. “It was easy to feel hopeful and naive after there was a settlement with the WGA,” Maltese says. “We’re clearly going to have to fight the same kind of fight, and it’s going to be that hard.”

The UAW is undertaking a “stand-up strike” strategy, where different plants and workers go on strike at different times, in an attempt to up leverage and keep the companies guessing. It’s an innovative tactic — it’s also one that’s still playing out, as some workers have walked off the job while others are still plugging along.

“Some people are ready to just kind of, hey, let’s go out, let’s [go on strike],” says Luigi Gjokaj, vice president at UAW Local 51 in Michigan, which isn’t currently striking. “Others are like, ‘Well, we thought it would have been wrapped up by now.’ And we have to constantly remind them that negotiations are going to be difficult all the time. Only four weeks in, this is still relatively early. And the company is not going to give us everything that we want them to. If they did, we wouldn’t really need to go on strike.”

The initial proposals from the Big Three were “garbage,” he emphasizes. “If we don’t take a risk, then we’re stuck, there’s no possibility of a better future,” Gjokaj, whose grandfather worked at Chrysler, says. “I’d rather take the risk and know than wonder for one more contract or my entire career, what if? What if we had given it everything we had?”

Those who were part of recently successful strikes note that there were points where things got tough.

The path from taking a vote to authorize a strike and actually going on strike can be a rocky one. “Voting for a strike is completely different from actually being on the strike line,” says Georgette Bradford, an ultrasound technologist at Kaiser Permanente and a voting member of its union’s bargaining team. Workers there recently undertook a three-day strike before reaching an agreement with their employer. “People are really enthusiastic about voting for a strike, but when it comes to really [where] the rubber hits the road, that’s a whole other conversation you have to have with members.”

Unions have the dual responsibility in keeping membership energized on the picket line and making sure people don’t fall through the cracks. There’s also a reality that not everyone wants the same things. “I heard some questions about the scope of our bargaining agenda, that were like, ‘Oh, isn’t there a way we could get this even if we don’t get that?’ Everybody has their own sets of priorities,” says Josh Gondelman, a comedy writer and council member for the Writers Guild of America East. “Because that didn’t break out into factionalism at any point or mutiny, I think everyone really stayed the course.”

It helped that the writers really were not picking up what the studios were putting down initially. “As things wore on, it got really tiring, but I think the deals that we were offered were really insulting at first,” Gondelman says. “There was nothing to crawl back to.”

A strike isn’t some romantic endeavor, it’s a mechanism to get from A to B

The effort workers on strike undertake can be inspiring, but strikes aren’t some super romantic venture. They can cause real hardship and disruptions, including to consumers and to other workers who aren’t on strike but whose jobs are impacted nonetheless.

Strikes are reflective of some complicated larger realities. The rich in America continue to get richer as much of the rest of the population falls behind. Profit motive puts companies at odds with their employees from the get-go. A strike means workers feel the situation has deteriorated so much that they don’t really have any other options. They feel the short-term sacrifice is better than the long-term sacrifice they feel like they would make if they didn’t walk out.

“This is in the larger context of workers taking it on the chin. The rich get richer, and it comes from the pockets of hard-working folks,” says Sylvia Allegretto, a senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a progressive think tank. “You have an unlevel playing field where corporate power is just unwieldy these days.”

The current moment, where the labor market is hot and workers do have some power, makes a strike more tenable. “Right now, at least, it’s a risk that a lot of workers are willing to take, given the fact that they have leverage in a way that they haven’t had in the past 20, 30 years,” says Ali Bustamante, the deputy director of the Worker Power and Economic Security program at the Roosevelt Institute, a progressive think tank.

The moment may also be fleeting. Hot strike summer 2024 or 2025 might very well not be a thing.

“There’s a really hot labor market right now that is really creating this sense of leverage for workers … but it’s at their peril, at their risk,” Bustamante says. Just like workers have quit their jobs at higher rates amid the pandemic recovery, workers are pseudo-quitting by striking. For plenty of people it is working out, but nothing’s a sure thing. “Whether it pays off or not is really determined by whether the labor market stays as strong as it is.”

A strike is a waiting game, and it’s one that isn’t taken lightly by anyone, including those at the center of it. Gjokaj, the Michigan local vice president, acknowledges it’s grueling, but he still thinks it’s better than the alternative. “[I would be] more scared if we would have not done this, if they would have brought multiple deals that we vote on and keep kicking the can down the road,” he says. “I think we’ve been kind of scared long enough, and enough people are fed up.”