The first recorded labor strike in world history occurred in Egypt in the 12th century. Workers charged with building the Pharaoh’s burial tomb stopped working on several occasions because they were not given sufficient rations of food and water.
Let that sink in.
In 2023, so far there have been 200 hundred labor strikes affecting over 320,000 workers. That is triple the number in 2022 and ten times as many as there were in 2021.
Strikes are a powerful tool for extracting important concessions from those in control of organizations. Yet they also exact a significant toll on all involved.
The average strike lasts forty-one days but many can go much longer (the current Writer’s Guild strike has lasted almost five months.) Now consider that 60% of workers live paycheck to paycheck.
All my life, I have seen strikes up close and personal. When my mom’s second husband went on strike it affected not only our household income but the level of verbal abuse he inflicted on all of us.
Over the years, several family members and friends have also gone on prolonged strikes. While there is strike pay and unemployment, they typically don’t come close to making up for lost wages or lost peace of mind.
Last year was my turn to join the picket line as I went on strike as part of a union representing part-time faculty at one of the universities in which I teach. What I witnessed first hand in several negotiating sessions was abhorrent behavior.
In my class, Creative Team Dynamics, I now use my strike experience as a case study on how not to resolve a disagreement.
While generally speaking, I am unabashedly a union member and a supporter of worker’s rights, I have come to grow cynical of the tactics and rhetoric deployed by both sides.
I found this recent quote by the new leader of the UAW whose workers recently went on strike particularly alarming: “This is the end of company unionism, where the companies and the union work together in a friendly way, because it hasn’t been good for our members.”
Read that again. Being friendly isn’t good for us. Ouch.
In almost any situation involving a disagreement, trust, transparency and teamwork are required to come to an agreement that both sides can feel good about.
Instead, it seems as if both the goalposts and plays have changed. Rather than seeking a mutually beneficial agreement, the goal is now to win at all costs, demonize our opponent, to extract as much pain from the other side as possible.
In the short term, these wins may seem sweet but in the long run it is more likely to prove sour for both parties.
Like too many things in our society, we fail to see the bigger picture, aim for the common good or consider the long term consequences of our actions. In doing so we set a poor example for our children, one that reflects a society that sees everything as a fight and zero sum game.
Imagine if two parents argued over dinner – what they should have and who should make it. Unable to agree, they both left the kitchen, taking all the food with them. During their “strike” they often go weeks without negotiating. Leaving their children to fend for themselves or go hungry. As the strike goes on, they say nasty things about each other, not only in front of the kids but in front of everyone they know. Eventually, they reach an agreement and come back to the kitchen to feed their kids. Imagine now that mother, father and kids all sit down to finally eat that meal. Picture it. Are they happy? What kind of taste does that meal leave in their mouth? What are the long term prospects for that family?
Contrast all this with this moving story from the UK, where a labor dispute was resolved without work stoppage and most importantly the process was infused with care, empathy and understanding. While it may have taken a while, it is the embodiment of the quote of another famous organizer, Gandhi, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” How easy it is to see all parties sitting together and working out future differences.
There will always be conflict and disputes. Particularly over questions of fairness, rights and how to divide the proverbial pie. Fortunately, most disputes do eventually end but the process of how they get resolved will likely determine the likelihood of another dispute or conflict in the future.
And haven’t we had enough conflict already?