At 5:30 on the morning of January 20, members of the Centro de Trabajdores Unidos en Lucha (CTUL) in Minneapolis launched the first strike of the Trump administration, a walkout of Home Depot cleaners. “What kind of future awaits our children and grandchildren if we don’t fight back now?” one striking worker told Workday Minnesota.
CTUL, in partnership with SEIU Local 26, had been running strikes against major retailers for many months, and had recently won a union for retail cleaners at Macy’s, Best Buy, and Target stores in the Twin Cities. But this strike’s target was even bigger. It was Donald Trump himself.
Across the country, at the Port of Oakland’s largest container terminal, 90 percent of employees refused to report to work the same day, drastically curtailing port operations and delaying the loading and unloading of ships. The strikers — members of International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 10 — told the local news that the action was a deliberate response to Trump’s inauguration.
The following week, after Trump issued an executive order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance called a one-hour strike as protesters thronged the JFK airport. “NO PICKUPS @ JFK Airport 6 PM to 7 PM today,” the labor organization tweeted. “Drivers stand in solidarity with thousands protesting inhumane & unconstitutional #MuslimBan.”
The resistance to Trump in recent weeks has taken on so many forms as to be overwhelming: marches, demonstrations, guerrilla theater, petitions, raucous town hall meetings. Some of these events have been local and relatively small in scale, while others — most notably the Day Without Immigrants and the Day Without a Woman actions in recent days — have been national or even international in scope, involving millions of participants.”
But one thread of resistance worth separating from the bundle and examining more closely is actions by workers as workers, at the point of production. Because if the business of America is business, no action is more disruptive than a strike.
Why Strikes Work
It’s no coincidence that none of the strikes above were launched (officially, at least) by unions operating under collective bargaining agreements. US labor law makes it harder for workers with a union contract to strike than for those without one, and — in addition to those longstanding legal constraints — strike activity by US unions has practically disappeared.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the past decade averaged only fourteen major work stoppages a year, down from more than three hundred in the early 1970s. And when unions do call strikes, it’s as a tool of last resort during contract negotiations. The strike as a political weapon has disappeared from the playbook of old-line unions.
In this environment, any kind of workplace activism is a welcome sign.
Marches, petitions, and peaceful protests are important and necessary, but they are also primarily symbolic acts. A huge march shows that there is popular opposition to Trump and hints at electoral fallout to come. A strike shuts down production in real time. Its effects are immediately tangible. For every hour that those container ships in Oakland were delayed, multinational corporations suffered direct financial losses.
Put another way, strikes by the 99 percent inexorably inflict harm on the 1 percent. Even if Donald Trump hadn’t won the presidency, it is difficult to imagine any legislation making it through Paul Ryan’s House of Representatives that would impair corporations’ bottom lines. But strikes do just that, no matter who is in power. No work, no profits.
Workplace actions generate leverage in several other important ways. First, they implicate Corporate America in the Trump agenda. Lots of companies have tried (e.g., through Super Bowl ads) to rhetorically distance themselves from Trump. But multinational conglomerates want his corporate tax cuts. They want a national right-to-work law. They want workplace safety and environmental rules dismantled. They want financial deregulation.
Even the corporations with the most progressive veneer are not going to support policies that shift the balance of power in favor of workers and make their lives better. Strikes and other workplace actions turn Trump’s nativist, anti-worker agenda into an albatross around corporations’ neck.
Strikes force corporations — who are brilliant at not reacting, at not making waves, at not drawing attention to their shenanigans — to respond, on their opponents’ terms. If they overreact, like Bradley Coatings did when it fired eighteen workers who participated in the Day Without Immigrants in Tennessee, they risk sparking a backlash that tarnishes their image and depresses their profits.
Second, militant action in the workplace connects workers to those they might not otherwise reach.
When people see other workers striking for universal health care or a living wage, they begin to view the strikers as allies with concerns beyond their immediate self-interest. Many have been conditioned to think of collective bargaining strikes as selfish. But everyone can see that a strike against a Muslim ban is nothing of the sort. Strikers’ militancy is thus imbued with a moral force that can cause others to rethink their own views on the issue. Workers who walk off the jobs in pursuit of a common interest occupy a moral high ground that is worth holding.
Finally, it’s good practice. Under Trump, things are going to get much, much worse before they get better. American workers have to begin exercising their strike muscles now. Workplace militancy can be energizing, empowering, and exciting, but it doesn’t happen by accident. Any walkout or picket or “Everybody wear a button denouncing Steve Bannon Day” requires planning and preparation. Too few workers in the US have the know-how to plan and execute these kinds of actions. The best way to learn is to give it a try.
And fortunately, they have a template: the actions of members from CTUL, ILWU Local 10, and the Taxi Workers Alliance.
There is an electric air on the Left these days, with millions of people looking for a means to channel their outrage. Strikes and other workplace actions can, with modest preparation, find plenty of willing supporters to back it and amplify its message.
Militancy doesn’t have to take the form of open-ended strikes that risk people’s livelihoods. The US has seen so few strikes in recent years that any workplace action can make a splash. The taxi strike in New York lasted only an hour, but it garnered massive amounts of attention. Nor must actions involve every worker in a workplace. A militant minority can still send a powerful message with a well-planned walkout — directed at the Trump administration and its allies, not just the boss of a particular workplace.
As many others have noted, the nation’s cultural gestalt has shifted over the past century such that people identify more as consumers than as producers, more by what they own and buy than by what they do and make. This is unfortunate, because workers’ power is greater at the point of production than almost anywhere else. That power can and should be used to take on Trump’s agenda.