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Commentary

Picket-Line Life Ranges From Euphoria to Dread

October 23, 2003|David Macaray | David Macaray was president and chief contract negotiator of Local 672 of the Assn. of Western Pulp and Paper Workers from 1988 to 1997.

You don't own it until it costs you something.

-- George Meany, president of the AFL-CIO, 1955-79

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The word "strike," as it applies to labor disputes, is an old naval term. To lower the sails aboard ship is to strike them, which is what sailors did when they wanted to shut down shipboard action.

Industrial strikes in the United States go back to the beginning of the 19th century; indeed, as early as 1825, the powerful and progressive Boston carpenters union had already struck, successfully, for a 10-hour workday.

It has been said that all strikes are alike in that they have similar beginnings and middles and differ only in their endings. Presumably, what the United Food and Commercial Workers union is going through in its dispute with California grocery stores is no exception.

Going on strike has its own irresistible logic. Union members can be "nibbled to death by ducks" as the company gradually hollows out its contracts or they can stand up and fight for their rights, even if it means losing money. And virtually every striker loses money. In fact, being the cure that's worse than the disease is part of a strike's defiant charm. Workers who are never willing to fight, no matter what the dangers or odds, don't deserve to prosper.

Typically, strikes pass through three phases: euphoria, boredom and dread. Arguably, the euphoria that comes with shutting down an operation is as close as any citizen will get to a feeling of having helped foment a minor revolution. In their giddy fraternalism and insolence, strikes are the blue-collar version of the Boston Tea Party.

Within a month, however, the exhilaration gives way to boredom as the rank and file, having learned picket line etiquette and adjusted to being unemployed, settles in for the long ride. From now until signature time, it all resembles anticlimax.

Pangs of dread begin to seep into the collective psyche in the second month once health benefits have expired, the novelty has worn off and rumors of bitter stalemate have begun to eat away at the general optimism. Paradoxically, this same anxiety can also act as a catalyst, transforming the strike into a "siege" and turning ordinary members into militants who, aware that the battle lines have been clearly drawn, now regard a return to work as capitulation. When this intransigence coincides with the resolve of a pushed-to-the-wall bargaining team, a strike can drag on for months.

Management tends to see walkouts as subversive, a form of industrial treason. That is why it's rare for a company, once a strike has been called, to continue to negotiate in earnest; management doesn't wish to reach a settlement too quickly -- even a favorable one -- if it's going to reinforce the view that mutiny is a pain-free option amounting to nothing more than a couple weeks of unpaid vacation.

Happily, when strikes end, labor relations usually return to normal. Friendships are renewed, routines are reestablished and, despite dire warnings to the contrary, all is pretty much forgiven. The only exception is scabs. Union members never forget or forgive those who crossed over.

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