Skip to content Skip to footer

2019 Showed That Workers Win Big If They Bargain Big

Lessons gleaned from this year’s momentous struggles can inform labor’s broader strategy heading into 2020.

Striking teachers, school staff and supporters march through downtown Chicago on the ninth day of the Chicago Teachers Union strike on October 25, 2019.

This year proved a consequential one for labor struggles, with major new contracts in place not only for public-sector workers, including major teachers’ unions across the country, but also for private-sector unions including the United Auto Workers and the United Food and Commercial Workers.

While some unions and pro-labor organizations touted major victories this year, others returned to their workplaces from picket lines with mixed-result contracts at best. Still, the lessons gleaned from this year’s momentous struggles can inform the labor movement’s broader strategy heading into 2020, both on the next set of picket lines and in how the movement relates to Democratic candidates vying for the presidential nomination. Here’s an overview of a few of the year’s biggest strikes, and what their outcomes portend for the year ahead.

Teachers Unions Win Big While Bargaining Big

This year started out strong with the United Teachers of Los Angeles’s (UTLA) successful six-day strike in January. The union picked up on tactics first used in 2012 by the Chicago Teachers Union, employing a strategy of “bargaining for the common good” — meaning UTLA negotiated on a wide range of issues beyond those typically addressed through collective bargaining. Other teachers’ unions began eyeing the strategy, and the tactic picked up steam throughout the year.

Not only does UTLA’s new contract address its core demands, including a 6 percent raise, increased overall funding and caps on class sizes, it also includes gains on other issues, such as more nurses and additional resources for students. The new contract also includes special provisions requiring the school district to pay an attorney to support children with legal issues related to their immigration status, and curtail policies that permit what the union has called racially motivated searches.

Soon after LA teachers returned to their classrooms, teacher strikes and protests spread to other blue cities and states, including Denver, Virginia, Oakland and Chicago — in contrast to the largely right-to-work, red state strike wave that began in West Virginia in 2018.

In Oakland, teachers ended a seven-day strike with an 11 percent pay raise and a 3 percent bonus over four years. The school district agreed to hire additional counselors, psychologists and special education teachers, and agreed to give school nurses generous bonuses and raises in an area with one of the highest costs of living in the U.S. Facing school closures, the Oakland Education Association (OEA) fought back, saving nearly two dozen schools while joining UTLA in pushing for a statewide moratorium on new charter schools. OEA President Keith Brown told Truthout in February that the strike had forced the superintendent and the school board “to either listen to parents, students and communities, or take the side of the privatizers.”

The labor movement will look back on the 2019 teacher strikes as a turning point — when the #RedForEd movement found its power with an educational justice agenda.

Momentum from blue state teacher strikes continued in Chicago in October, as the Chicago Teachers Union’s left-wing Caucus of Rank and File Educations went on the offense, taking the bargaining-for-the-common-good approach even further. The union not only pushed for pay raises, adequate staffing and small class sizes, but also for affordable housing for the city’s working class, including its nearly 17,000 students experiencing homelessness.

After its historic 11-day citywide strike, the union won 180 case manager positions for its diverse learner population, 20 English language program teachers for its bilingual students, and full-time staff to assist homeless students. The new contract also added language establishing “sanctuary schools,” prohibiting Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents from entering school buildings unless they have a warrant. The new agreement also provides critical immigration and legal services to students and families.

Key to the union’s success was its close solidarity with school support staff and park district workers, who often deal with the same Chicago youth. The union struck alongside the 7,000 school employees in Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 73 for the first time, creating a united front that raised up broad sectors of the working class affiliated with the city’s schools, including special education personnel, bus aides, custodians and security guards. In the end, the SEIU school workers also won large-scale victories in their contract.

It’s clear the labor movement will look back on the 2019 teacher strikes, especially those in LA and Chicago, as a turning point — when the #RedForEd movement found its power and overcame politician’s austerity and “school reform” agendas with an educational justice agenda, including demands for deeper investments into communities of color.

Previous Concessions, Union Corruption Hinder UAW

This year also saw one of the longest-running strikes against a major auto company in recent decades as the United Auto Workers’ (UAW) strike against General Motors (GM) came to a close in October after members spent six weeks on picket lines. Ultimately though, only 57 percent of GM workers approved a contract they called “mixed at best.”

The vote tally revealed a bitter divide between workers who clearly benefit from the new deal and those who fear that their plants will be closed under an agreement that does not contain written guarantees that GM will allocate certain products to particular plants, thus maintaining a guaranteed production capacity. For instance, workers at Rochester’s GM Operations voted overwhelmingly against the contract, with 526 members voting no. The plant is scheduled to cease production of fuel-injection components in 2021, reducing its production by two-thirds. Many workers fear the plant will be shuttered as a result.

It remains clear to many UAW members that there’s a long way to go when it comes to improving the union and garnering larger contract wins.

While UAW members had opportunities to make serious gains amid record profits for auto companies, including nearly $35 billion in profits for GM over the past three years, they faced a series of setbacks, including losing health coverage after GM stopped covering more than 50,000 auto workers’ insurance premiums. The move forced the union to reach into its strike fund to pay the bills.

Members faced other challenges such as shuttered plants, employment levels at all-time lows and internal corruption: Several union officials indicted UAW President Gary Jones, who was investigated by the FBI for graft. Five other top union officials have been convicted on corruption charges.

Not only that, but the union kept its strategy close to its vest. Many members joined picket lines without being told exactly what the union’s bargaining goals were. Leadership did not conduct a single survey of its membership, nor did it make meaningful attempts to keep them in the loop, according to members. Bargaining was closed, and members were informed largely by reading media reports.

Moreover, as one UAW member told Labor Notes, the current offer was premised on previous concessions by the union, such as cutting skilled jobs and the introduction of a two-tier system for temporary and permanent workers. The two-tier system allows lower-paid, outside contractors and temps to operate under a different set of rules that allows them virtually no rights and benefits.

While two-tier is still in place, the union was able to make some changes to the system: Second-tier workers will now reach a maximum pay of $32.32 an hour at the end of four years, a wage equal to their first-tier workers. (Previously, second-tier workers had to work for eight years to get anywhere near first-tier workers’ pay.) Further, a new pathway allows thousands of temporary workers to become permanent once they’ve been temps for three years.

Overall, workers will receive a 6 percent raise over the course of the new four-year contract and lump sums equal to 4 percent of yearly wages in the second and fourth year. Lastly, the new contract lifted caps on profit-sharing bonuses. Despite these gains, however, it remains clear to many UAW members that there’s a long way to go when it comes to improving the union and garnering larger contract wins.

Stop & Shop Workers Held Firm

Another major private-sector strike in April also stands as one of the largest in recent years. More than 31,000 Stop & Shop supermarket employees walked off the job at about 240 supermarkets in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut. Workers returned to work after their 11-day strike with a new three-year contract that kept in place employee health care and retirement benefits, provided wage increases, and kept time-and-a-half pay for employees who work on Sunday.

Like CTU, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) benefited from close solidarity with other sectors of the labor movement. Nearly 2,000 Teamsters who drive trucks for Stop & Shop or its suppliers refused to make essential food deliveries during the strike, letting shelves go unstocked and forcing stores to close their doors.

The strikers were met with overwhelming community support: Many customers refused to cross picket lines, and more than 1,000 people donated to a striking workers’ hardship fund. 2020 presidential contenders like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former Vice President Joe Biden expressed support for workers. Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose campaign staff is represented by a unit of the UFCW, also expressed his support.

This year’s major strikes build on last year’s work stoppage trend while underscoring how workers are not benefiting from Trump’s economy.

Stop & Shop management argued that it needed to cut employees’ health care and pension benefits and make cuts in Sunday pay in order to compete with nonunion grocery chains, but the successful strike sent a resounding message throughout the grocery-chain sector that any intimidation effort meant to extract short-term profits off the backs of vulnerable workers will not go unchallenged. Further, UFCW showed the power of the strike tactic: The work stoppage caused the supermarket chain to lose about $2 million a day, turning up the heat on executives to offer a fair deal with each passing day.

Record Work Stoppages Continue

This year’s large-scale public and private-sector strikes alike continue a trend that started in January of 2018 when teachers in West Virginia walked out of their classrooms.

According to data released in February by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, a record number of U.S. workers stopped working in 2018 due to labor disputes with employers. A total of 485,000 employees participated in major work stoppages last year. The number is the highest the Bureau has recorded since 1986, when steelworkers, garbage collectors and flight attendants went on strike. (The 485,000 figure also includes people who were unable to work because employers temporarily shut down operations or locked them out of workplaces.)

This year’s major strikes build on last year’s work stoppage trend while underscoring how workers are not benefiting from Trump’s economy, an issue he is sure to make a central pillar of his campaign going into 2020. With #RedForEd teachers out front, the labor movement must continue to fight for much more than traditional bread-and-butter issues. In 2020, as the presidential election heats up, it must follow teachers’ lead in bargaining for the common good, forcing Democratic candidates further to the left by uniting with other sectors around a broad agenda focused on beating back neoliberal-driven austerity politics and lifting up the most disadvantaged communities.

We have hours left to raise $12,000 — we’re counting on your support!

For those who care about justice, liberation and even the very survival of our species, we must remember our power to take action.

We won’t pretend it’s the only thing you can or should do, but one small step is to pitch in to support Truthout — as one of the last remaining truly independent, nonprofit, reader-funded news platforms, your gift will help keep the facts flowing freely.