Labor’s ultimate weapon is rarely used today. So we asked readers who’ve been on strike: What’s it like?
By MALLORY GRUBEN
It’s going to take all of us
Without the solidarity of those outside the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco and Grain Millers (BCTGM) union, Nabisco workers would not have held on to their benefits.
That’s what BCTGM Local 364 member Donna Marks, 57, believes, after spending more than a month on the picket line outside the Nabisco bakery in North Portland.
“We didn’t win this because we are all-powerful Nabisco,” Marks said. “We won this because the community got involved. We won because other unions got involved.”
Marks’ union involvement started in 1990, when she asked to be a shop steward for her union at the Wonder Bread bakery. Now at Nabisco, she’s part of the Local 364 Executive Board. She describes herself as “union strong.”
So she didn’t bat an eye in August 2021 when she and 200 other Portland Nabisco workers decided to walk out to reject concessions proposed by parent company Mondelez International.
“It wasn’t a hard decision,” Marks said. “When I knew we were going to go … I let my boss know I needed to leave, and I walked out and grabbed a picket sign and immediately started at that moment. We were on strike, and I didn’t look back.”
Marks remembers moments of anxiety, including the temporary termination of her work-covered medical plan. Her daughter has an autoimmune disease, so losing their coverage in the midst of the pandemic was nerve wracking.
Still, she never considered backing down.
“I’ll tell you what I was never going to do, was cross that picket line, because I wasn’t going to stand for what they wanted,” Marks said.
Hers was the first BCTGM local at Nabisco to walk out, but Local 364 was later joined by about 800 other members from locals in Chicago, Richmond, Denver and Atlanta.
Workers from other unions showed their solidarity by joining the picket line or refusing to bring shipments to the bakery. Community members helped, too, by visiting local grocery stores to encourage shoppers to boycott Oreos, Ritz Crackers, and other Nabisco products during the strike.
Some supporters even blocked roads and entrances to prevent scab workers from getting into the plant, Marks said.
Those acts of support bolstered the effort, and they showed Marks that just as one worker is less powerful without a union, one union is less powerful without its brothers and sisters in labor.
Now, when other unions walk out, she’s quick to join the picket line with them. She hosted four panels about her strike experience for the 2022 Labor Notes conference in Chicago, and she’s spoken at rallies for union nurses.
Most recently, she stood with Portland city workers on their strike.
“One of the things I realized was we were an army with different branches,” Marks said. “All the branches have to come together in order for us to win. It’s the only way we are going to win against corporations.”
Prepare. Strike. Repeat.
In Ira Erbs’ perspective, an effective strike requires buildup and follow through.
Erbs, 67, took to the picket line twice in his 35-year career as a teacher. Both experiences taught him the importance of communicating with union members and the community before a walkout, then sustaining the collective energy after the strike.
His first strike was in 1989 while he was working as a social studies teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District. He was 34 at the time and a proud member of the United Teachers of Los Angeles branch of AFT. He worked alongside other educators represented by the LA affiliate of the National Education Association.
District officials refused to improve low salaries, huge class sizes and outdated materials. So the two unions joined together and flexed their muscle with a strike, Erbs said. The decision followed almost three years of getting buy-in from teachers and parents in the “monstrously large” school district.
“I think the greatest lesson is that if you are going to go on strike, you really need to do things like informational picketing,” Erbs said. “There’s a whole lot of groundwork that needs to take place if you want to be successful.”
After nine days, the district agreed to the teachers’ terms. But within a year, management started clawing back some of the wins, Erbs said.
In 2019, exactly 30 years later, LA teachers went on strike again. Erbs joked he had to double check the date on the 2019 news articles to make sure he hadn’t slipped back in time.
“It was the same situation that existed when I left in ’92,” he said. “Teachers still weren’t getting enough materials to teach students. They had huge class sizes. Literally almost word for word, nothing had changed.”
In 2021, Erbs again went on strike. This time, teachers in the Evergreen School District in Vancouver, Washington, walked out because management refused to funnel money earmarked by lawmakers for raises into teachers’ pay.
A member of the Evergreen Education Association, Erbs helped organize informational pickets, met with fellow members and explained the situation to families. That groundwork paid off with ample community support.
“We had probably a mile and a half on both sides of the main boulevard with folks from the community and teachers and students,” Erbs said. “There were people driving up and down the road with pro-teacher comments on their cars, honking their horns. For anyone who was skeptical about the notion of being on strike, that sent home that the parents and community were behind it.”
Erbs also advised union leaders to stay in touch with members and families after the strike, so those hard-won contract improvements wouldn’t be repealed. Though he has since retired from teaching, Erbs stays active in the labor movement as the vice president of political action for AFT-Oregon. He’s happy to report that his union siblings in Vancouver remain engaged in local action.
“It’s a damn shame that workers have to (strike), but the beauty of collective action is the old trite saying,” Erbs said. “If you go in and ask for a raise on your own, you’re begging. If you go in with your union, you’re negotiating.”
Never let up
Just a few weeks into his temporary gig with Williams Controls in Southwest Portland, Aaron Timm made a significant show of solidarity: striking with his permanent employee coworkers.
Timm walked out with United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 492 on Sept. 9, 2002, as they protested the company’s refusal to bargain in good faith. His temp agency told him if he didn’t cross the picket line, he’d be fired.
“I told them I’d trust the union to protect me,” Timm wrote in an account of the strike he provided to the Labor Press. “The next day I filed for unemployment and started walking the line.”
For nearly a year, he picketed with Local 492. The strike lasted 344 days.
Once a general manager called a bomb squad—to blow up a cooler of milk and cookies union members left for the guards. That good faith gesture, Timm recalls, ended with dairy and cookies all over the side of the building.
About $400 a week in strike pay provided by UAW International and Local 492 made the difference between paying rent or starving, Timm recalls. It also gave him breathing room while looking for supplemental work.
A longshore union local offered up any leftover jobs not filled by their own rank and file.
“Striker casual is what we were. … I swept the floors in a granary, unloaded cars from a ship, and since I had kingpin/pintle experience, once drove a CONEX box hauler around the loading docks,” Timm wrote. “I was still out on the picket lines, only in the afternoon rather than in the morning.”
When the casual jobs dried up, many strikers sought other jobs to supplement strike checks, but continued to picket when they had time.
“Our line was fairly small, day in and day out, but we never let up,” Timm wrote. “We’d come together on weekends and holidays, or any time we had a news event or when bigwigs were coming through the area. It was kind of like belonging to the Elks or something, only our meetings were a few times a week.”
In the end, about 98 of the 120 union members got their jobs back. They also received compensation for lost wages because the National Labor Relations Board validated the union’s unfair labor practice complaints.
Timm wasn’t among those hired back. As a temp, he wasn’t eligible. But today, he’s a member of Machinists Lodge 63. And he remembers with pride his months on strike at Williams Controls.