Tips For Running A Strike For Workers

With the 5% “fair share” union wage campaign and strikes in Auckland and Christchurch – how about some subversive strike running tips for fun? How should one run a successful strike?

I recently represented workers in a multinational company. The foreign bosses had criticised New Zealand managers for not squeezing out maximum shareholder value and being soft as they had never copped a strike over pay! My union client got angry and obliged them with real threats. The company caved in like a fawning dog. Tough talk is cheap, be it by workers or bosses.

Let’s get through the legal basics first. To strike is to either to stop work ” a bluey”; reduce normal output “go slow”; or fail to do accept work normally done “work to rule or a black ban” .

“Work to rule” and “go slows” have the advantage that one is still on the job and being paid, and such tactics can get the boss to talk or make them loose their cool and suspend or lock out staff.

Strikes are illegal if the collective agreement hasn’t yet expired. Also its illegal in an essential industry, like petrol delivery or hospital work, unless 14 days notice of intention to strike is given. Strikes for a genuine health or safety reasons are however and never illegal.

To strike is to act together. A few characters just walking off the job may lead to a boss justifiably dismissing them for simply abandoning work. Technically speaking employment agreements are “on hold” when workers are lawfully out on strike. At the end of the day strike law is hard to enforce – try jailing most of a community’s nurses for example. That’s why the army was used to break the 1951 Watersiders Strike and a general election called. A special act of Parliament was needed to break the 1983 troubles at the Marsden Point Refinery.

Successful strikes are not usually knee-jerk reactions. They are more likely to be thought through and coordinated involving workers in key positions and timed well. It was not just happenstance that the Cook Straight ferries used to strike at Christmas for more pay. A bakery facing unnecessary staff cuts needs the bread bakers, the store people and delivery drivers and those who start production process to all be involved. A few production hands walking of the job in a wildcat fit of pique would likely just fizz out.

The first thing to do if a strike is in the offering is to plan. In-house union or staff association leadership needs to be sorted and someone elected with clout and mana. Elect a committee from as wide a representation as is possible. It’s them up to them to then organise the strike. A critical first decision is timing when to pull the pin. Is there an important export order deadline, a full sales order book or a visit of bigwigs ? Each committee member should have a particular job suited to their talents. A media spokesperson, a picket line coordinator, someone in charge of leaflets and a web site, another finances, hardship problems and so forth.

Prior to a strike it suggested do have an “all up” meeting. Debate the reasons and alternatives for taking such drastic action openly and fairly and explore alternatives. Get a mandate – half cock supported strikes inevitably fizz. Collect up all the workers home addresses and phone numbers, partners and children’s names. A strike headquarters should be established and manned continuously. Failing to keep all fellow strikers in the picture, by phone contact or leaflets is a sure recipe for a strike to fail.

The picket line is generally the heart of the strike. It needs to be set up straightaway, picket captains selected and rosters sorted for workers to man it. Picket captains should not be hotheads, and rules laid down on behaviour – absolutely no drugs or beer for instance. Vehicles and others crossing the picket line should be stopped and told firmly what the issues are and encouraged to turn back. Feelings will run high. It was just 7 years ago this “Labour Lore” column reported the tragic death of Christine Clark run over on a picket line in Lyttleton. I’m told that about five hours is the maximum one should spend on the line.

Placards and captions that attract public support are really worthwhile as pictures of picket lines often end up on TV or in the newspapers. “Scabs” is the colloquial term of endearment for those who cross picket lines. “Black bans” are when certain supplies to a company are stopped either by picket or agreement with staff of other employers. Sometimes “flying pickets” are organized outside supplier’s premises to draw attention to black bans and get support from fellow workers.

Each strike has its own momentum and unexpected twists. I was involved with the laboratory workers whose gung ho hospital managers flew in Australian lab technicians as strike breakers. I look back on that still thinking, what a scandalous waste of the replacement and glue ear operations money. All the ideologically driven management had to do was stop refusing to talk to their pretty sensible professional staff. It’s imperative to keep the public on side and counter publicity such as “lab workers strike endangers lives”.

A strikes ending should be thought through. There is little merit rubbing the losing parties nose in it; some face-saving may be needed. The conditions for a return to work need to be communicated to all strikers and the phrase back into work routines sorted. Lessons will have been learned and more often than not, bosses will have a grudging respect that there is a point when the workers say “enough is enough”.

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