Innovative Labor Strategies: 10 Campaigns to Learn From


This article is from the September/October 2003 issue of Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at

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This article is from the September/October 2003 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

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Organized labor could use a shot in the arm. Today, the percentage of U.S. workers in unions continues to fall despite massive organizing drives. Public-sector workers have been stripped of basic rights by the most anti-union administration in U.S. history. The hostile political climate and economic downturn have pressured many unions into concessionary bargaining. And immigrant workers—the base of many service sector and light manufacturing unions—are weathering a new nativist crackdown.

But amid all the bad news, there are unions and rank-and-file groups fighting back with innovative campaigns and shop-floor actions. Here are ten recent efforts of note.

1 Members Organizing Members In nine months last year, the Laborers Union quadrupled its membership in New Jersey's asbestos abatement industry, organizing 300 workers and raising the percentage of unionized workers in the industry from 15% to 65%. They did it with member organizers. The union hired fifteen of its own members; the new organizers spoke Spanish and Serbo-Croatian, the languages of the largely immigrant workforce, and were led by a worker with 12 years' experience in the asbestos industry. The union backed the member organizers with $600,000 and a sound organizing strategy: instead of targeting one contractor at a time, they simultaneously organized workers at all 60 of the state's asbestos abatement contractors. The result was a surge in the union's numbers and good first contracts, including raises of $5 to $7 per hour, plus contractor-paid health insurance and pensions.

2 Locking Out the Boss When shop stewards and members were fired at Toronto's postal station E, workers were angry—but they weren't well organized. Rather than coordinate a large campaign or a strike, they decided to lock out their boss. The action depended on a core of organized members who convinced supporters from other unions and community organizations to arrive at the post office early one morning and link arms to block the boss from entering. Meanwhile, the workers—including many who hadn't known of the action in advance—entered the post office, discussed what was going on, and unanimously passed a resolution firing the bosses for the day. The early-morning action attracted positive TV news coverage and raised the level of activism on the shop floor. The results: the manager was given a new, non-supervisory position and the demonstration of power put a temporary stop to the firings.

3 Community Contract Campaign Many unions are working to build and strengthen alliances with community organizations. Teachers' aides and assistants in Ithaca, New York, went so far as to frame their 2001 contract fight as a living wage campaign, launched in cooperation with the local Living Wage Coalition (LWC). NEA and LWC members circulated a community petition in support of the teachers and organized a large number of public events—rallies, marches, vigils, a forum for religious leaders, and a public hearing for the teachers to describe problems at work. After 18 months of union and community pressure, the teachers won raises approaching 50% over three years.

4 Making the Best of a Bad Reputation Are movers stupid, violent drunks, or do they just play them on TV? When New York movers in Teamsters Local 814 went on strike in 2000, they made use of their bad reputation to get employers shaking in their boots. Using cell phones, the movers would let each other know where and when scabs were making deliveries throughout Manhattan. Within half an hour, a few dozen movers would be on the scene, acting out a carefully choreographed simulation of a riot. With burly movers shouting at the tops of their lungs, giving scabs the finger, threatening to block traffic, and generally creating scenes all around New York, building managers and clients were begging the employers to stop the strike. The movers shut down 28 deliveries in two days, and after four days, won an improved contract.

5 Stopping Scabs with Salts When workers go on strike, employers often turn to day labor firms to provide scabs. But in Chicago, HERE, Teamster, and UE locals have teamed up with the local Day Labor Project to stop them. The key has been to "salt" the day labor firms—get union members or supporters hired as day laborers themselves—and find out the companies' vulnerabilities from the inside. In Chicago, salts have discovered a host of legal violations at day labor firms, from not informing workers that job assignments are scab positions to operating without licenses. Armed with evidence of violations, unions and the Day Labor Project have neutralized day labor firms by threatening them with lawsuits and public demonstrations if they provide scabs during strikes.


One of the labor movement's best innovations is its recent decision to defend the rights of immigrants. Traditionally, U.S. unions have done just the opposite, backing government efforts to deport undocumented workers and colluding with the CIA to undermine trade union movements abroad. Today, with immigrants facing heightened attacks in the guise of "national security," some unions have set important precedents for others to build on.

6 Challenging No-Match Firings In San Francisco, HERE has fought employers' use of "no-match" letters to terminate immigrant workers. These letters, sent by the Social Security Administration (SSA) to inform employers when workers' Social Security numbers do not match the SSA database, are increasingly being used to target immigrant workers. But HERE has won an arbitration decision establishing that the letters do not constitute just cause for firing. It has also won a contract provision allowing undocumented workers a year to get documentation without losing their seniority.

7 Stopping Airport Raids Last year at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, unions faced an employer which called in the INS to arrest and deport workers. In response to the INS raid at Sky Chef, a firm which prepares airline meals, local unions and the Jobs With Justice chapter staged a protest in the airport—an exceptionally difficult location for a rally post-9/11. The coalition used existing laws that designate airports as public spaces, as well as careful logistical planning, to pull off a powerful demonstration. Today, Jobs With Justice is convinced that there will be no more raids at the airport.


There's nothing like a well-timed strike to shift power in the workplace. In many industries, there are times when employers can't afford to lose even an hour of work—and in some sectors, production is structured so that workers are always under time pressure. While these pressure-cooker arrangements burden workers, some unions have turned the tables on employers by staging short but brutal strikes when workers are most needed.

8 Not-So-Speedy Delivery The San Francisco Bike Messenger Association (SFBMA, an ILWU affiliate) kicked off a campaign to organize the entire Bay Area urgent-delivery market in 1998-99. In the first year, they staged roughly 10 strikes. With companies guaranteeing deliveries in under an hour, messengers didn't need to park their bikes for long to win concessions: most strikes were just a few hours long. Messengers used the strikes to deliver "death by jabs," rather than knock-out punches to companies: frequent strikes combined with lawsuits and customer, community, and political pressure culminated in contracts and legal victories, including hundreds of thousands of dollars in back pay for wage and hour violations.

9 Supply Slowdown More recently, UAW members struck for just two days at Johnson Controls plants in Ohio, Oklahoma, Missouri, and Louisiana, and achieved surprising victories. The June 2002 strikes at the auto parts manufacturer took advantage of the industry's "just-in-time" production strategy, where assembly plants maintain no inventory and depend on a steady flow of parts from suppliers like Johnson Controls. The strike slowed or halted production at five assembly plants and brought Johnson Controls to the table. Workers fighting for first contracts at three of the struck plants won agreements that included $1,500 signing bonuses, wage hikes of $3 or more, a new pension plan, and prohibitions on plant closures. Workers at the fourth plant, who had been fighting for union recognition, won a card-check neutrality agreement—a pledge that Johnson Controls would not fight their organizing drive, and would recognize the union once a majority of workers signed union cards. Not only that, the strike forced Johnson Controls to agree to card-check neutrality at 26 of its other plants.

10 Rotting Fruit for Rotten Bosses In 1995, members of Oregon's farmworker union, PCUN, used a series of short, rolling strikes to win a 20% wage increase. The key was to target the strawberry fields, which needed to be harvested quickly. PCUN held two large strikes and a dozen smaller ones organized field by field. Just the publicized threat of rolling strikes at peak harvest time forced some growers to raise wages before the strawberry season began, and by the end of the campaign, farmworkers across the state saw their first wage gains in a decade.

Amy Offner is a Dollars & Sense co-editor.

Information on these campaigns is drawn from the Troublemakers Handboook, 2nd ed., forthcoming from Labor Notes. Thanks to authors Dan La Botz and Marsha Niemeijer and to editor Jane Slaughter for sharing draft material.