Lessons Learned

'Lessons Learned' from the History of the Railroad Union Strikes
  • Strikes usually occur over low wages, worker safety issues, increases in workload, increased working hours, reductions in staffing levels, unfair hiring/firing practices, abusive managers, bad working conditions, etc.
  • Often striking conditions occur during recessions/depressions and when companies, their senior executives and owners, become too driven by greed and focused on maximizing profits at the expense of their workers.
  • Often, local workers take the initiative to go on strike because the union's national  headquarter staff are not responsive or aggressive enough in taking action.
  • Often, highly paid senior executives of unions in their national headquarters are too cozy in their relationship with company owners and are out of touch and not as attentive to the needs of local workers as they ought to be.
  • When a union goes on strike, it should have clear objectives in mind. It should be as wide in scope as possible - regional or national. It should be ready to call upon other craft unions for assistance as needed. 
  • Expect companies to try and use whatever means possible to end the strike. They will escalate the situation depending on how strong a position they are in starting with:
 -   making meaningless concessions,
 -   firing union leaders & strikers,
 -   hiring non-union 'scab' workers,
 -   locking people out of the company buildings and grounds,
 -   using the court system to get court orders/injunctions against the union,
 -   using intimidation against union members and their families,
 -   unleashing company police/hired 'enforcers' on strikers,
 -   planting company spies within union ranks,
 -   using news media, creating situations to put the union in a bad light,
 -   creating strike 'incidents' so the union will be seen in a bad light,
 -   appealing to state or federal governments for intervention up to and  including the use of national guard and federal troops.

* This 'strike breaking' pattern of behaviour against unions has been repeated over and over during the past centuries.
  • If companies have to give in, they will concede as little as possible and as the situation calms down, they can afford to wait and let workers become complacent. They will strive to get back what they have conceded one way or another.
  • Unions must never stop organizing workers and educating their members. They must always be prepared for the next battle in the never ending tug of war with companies for fair wages, benefits, good working conditions, etc.  Unions must and must adapt and use effective, modern communication techniques to do this, e.g. web sites, online training, social networking, etc.
  • Workers should expect to suffer more than any company executives. In almost every major strike there have been strikers killed or wounded.  At times police or troops employed by the government to assist the companies have also been hurt. Company owners are rarely hurt in any way – physically, emotionally, financially, etc.
  • Unions have found that 'sit ins' or 'slow downs' by workers are often an effective alternative to more confrontational strikes.
  • The race, sex, or cultural background of union members should not be an issue. In fact, beware of companies or government officials trying to create divisiveness within the union by playing on these differences and using the media and other means to stoke this fire.
  • Remember, national guard units or local police are often union members or family relations of union members. When police and troops have been used, many times they have put down their weapons and expressed sympathy with the workers.  There have been examples in history where companies have even resorted to paying officers to try and ensure the troops carry out their wishes.
  • To counter company tactics, unions must be prepared on all fronts. They must have a financial war chest to help their union members as needed. They must have sympathetic, effective lawyers in their employ. They must have lobbyists so they can keep politicians in check. They must be well managed, organized, be ready to call on other unions for assistance and support, have union enforcers that can be used to counter company police/thugs. They must have good public relations people and cultivate the press.
  • About every 20 years, the cycle of economic downturn, recessions/depressions, company greed, etc. will reemerge. You can almost bank on it. That's when companies will try to get concessions from unions and workers.
  • Unions members need to be attuned to what globalization means and how outsourcing is a new variation on an old tactic that companies are using to bring pressure on workers to accept lower wages, accept benefit cuts, etc.  New tactics to counter this must be developed. Unions need to also be thinking globally and start to collaborate with their counterparts around the world.
  • Consider the power of financial boycotts. Unions and their members can choose not to spend their money on products or services produced by companies that are anti-union. Use this power. It's legal and it works.
  • Companies have tended to question the patriotism of union members/strikers in the news media. They often label union members as communists, socialists, extremists, enemies of social order,  etc.  to try and frighten the public and turn public opinion against the union. It's just another tactic they regularly employ.
  • Just as companies are mentoring and training the next generation of railroad executives, unions need to set up mentoring programs to prepare the next generation of effective railroad union leaders.
  • Finally, in this 21st century, globalization is taking its toll on union workers in the form of foreign competition, cheaper foreign labor pools, use of part-time or temporary employees, the loss of pensions and health benefits, etc.

Union Busters

'Best Practices'
based on Lessons Learned from Union Strikes

Now knowing some of the key tactics corporations will use to end strikes and break unions, there are quite a few ways to successfully counter their efforts. Here are just a few 'best practices'  for unions to consider if they plan on striking.
  • Maintain positive public relations using all media sources available.
  • Sit-ins, coupled with nonviolence, are the preferred methods to pursue.
  • Keep your national headquarters and other unions in the loop.
  • Ensure sympathetic politicians stop government intervention, i.e. use of police or militia forces.
  • Have a 'flying squad' ready to counter threatening moves or 'incidents' by corporations against strikers or their families.
  • Make sure you have funds and supplies to support striker's families.
  • Have lawyers on call to counter adverse legal action or court orders.
  • Keep an eye out for embedded corporate 'spies' in your midst.
  • Keep adapting to the changing world in this 21st century - reach out and learn to collaborate and work with international labor unions around the world for better wages, benefits, worker safety, etc. for workers everywhere. 

* Read "There is Power in a Union", the epic story of labor in America.

History of Unions

Over a period of many decades from the mid-1800's thru the mid 1900's, unions paved the road to the middle class for millions of working families. Unfortunately, the decline of union membership over the past 50 years has fueled the decline of real wages. Today, the U.S. holds  the distinction of having the most unequal income distribution in the industrial world.

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Pinkerton guards escorting strike breakers