The Ugly Side Of Strikes In The Modern World
In the before times, it wasn't uncommon for employees to be part of a group that dealt with unsatisfactory work conditions by just walking out until the boss met their demands. These groups were called, to use the ancient vernacular, "labor unions" and the walkout a "strike." The unions were such a threat to corporations back then, that sometimes the army would get called in. Shit got ugly.
Today, less than seven percent of the private sector workforce is unionized. If you and your co-workers marched off the job tomorrow, the odds are overwhelming they'd just transfer in workers from another office or store, and fire your ass. Times have changed.
Still, strikes do happen, and shit still gets somewhat ugly. That's why companies hire groups like Huffmaster, who provide temporary replacements for the striking workers (known rather unaffectionately to strikers as "scabs") and security guards to guide them through the chanting picket lines. We talked to "Jermaine" and "Julie" -- a security guard and a strikebreaking teacher, respectively -- to find out what it's like when a company and its labor force go to war.
Strikes Can Still Get Nasty
"I've seen things get rough," says Jermaine. "Not like it was in the twenties, but still bad." Ah, the 1920s -- when an attempt by coal miners to unionize once turned into a battle that left up to 130 corpses on the ground. So yes, it's not like that anymore.
Today's managers and CEOs might whine about unions, but at least they're not dropping actual bombs on them.
As for how bad it gets, well, it depends on who's on strike. Teachers unions are more restrained, he says, but the shit can hit the fan when a bunch of burly auto workers get involved.
"Any strike having to do with the UAW (United Auto Workers) or cars is another level ... I've had bricks thrown at me going back to the shuttle to the hotel. Sometimes they follow you back to the hotel and taunt you there, so you need to switch on a weekly basis."
"Always remember to sharpen the top of your sign handles into stakes."
We should point out here that in every labor dispute, there are competing narratives about which side is full of "goons" resorting to petty violence -- we'll have stories later on about strikers complaining of equally rough treatment at the hands of the strikebreakers. Each party is going to portray themselves as hard-working folk just trying to make a living despite the bullies standing in their way.
"This hospital in Oakland had this really nasty strike going on, and we were even warned before going in," says Jermaine. "Leading some replacements in the front, the nurses would twist the signs as I passed by, moving the top sign part right to my face. I got three paper cuts on my cheek and ear."
Luckily, he was already at the hospital so he was quickly treated and- oh, right.
On another occasion, he says he was driving a bus full of replacement workers when strikers began tapping its windows with their signs. He points out that that's normal, "but this one union guy tapped pool-cue style, smashed the driver side window next to me, and sent glass everywhere. I got a bunch of nasty cuts on my hand, but nothing on my face. No one got a good look, and since the union wouldn't rat him out, we never knew who did it. I was back the next day, and I made sure to wave at them with my bandaged hand on the way in."
Kids or no kids, nothing good ever came out of menacing a school bus.
Replacement teacher Julie tells similar stories. "We were driven in buses from the protected district building lot, but it didn't stop everything. A few subs had bricks thrown at their cars at one point ... and some were tailed home by who knows who. Those security guys were there for us."
Sympathy Toward Unions Isn't Tolerated
Jermaine consistently describes the unions as menacing -- his people could never let their guard down around picket lines, lest the unthinkable happen. This also demanded ideological purity in the ranks:
"Part of what I keep an eye out for is any positive talk of unions. Not because we would let them go because of it -- that's super illegal. It's because it helps us gauge how effectively they can protect people. If you like unions, how far would you go to protect people from picket lines? If someone attacked a replacement worker, would you use less than needed force to help? Would you hesitate longer? It's practical to know. I closely watch them to see if they are softer than they should be.
If your immediate reaction to people getting arrested for demanding McDonald's pay them a livable wage is
*jerk-off* or *smallest violin* motions, strikebreaking may be for you!
"One new recruit I had on a school strike in Ohio said he felt bad for the teachers ... he went against training and starting talking casually to some on the line instead of staying silent and vigilant. Another ... would hesitate at driving past a [picket] line into a school. Even if he was given the all-clear, he would stay there and was unsure if someone would dart across or if they would jeer him. We had to take him off driving duty."
Julie says it went the same on her end. "When I went to the school district building to apply, one of the first questions they asked was, 'Have you ever been part of a teacher's union in this district?' I don't think any of the subs there were, but they didn't want anyone who was a member in."
You shouldn't mention giving an apple to your first-grade teacher, just in case.
Jermaine, though, said you can find great strikebreakers among former union workers ... if they've got the right attitude. "We have brought on people who used to be in unions, but they hated them. I've worked here with a bunch of former teachers. And former union members are great -- they don't like them and won't be swayed because they were either fired or left because of a union. There's no love there."
Strikebreaker security was also constantly shuffled around the country, never allowed to work locally, so they wouldn't have any personal ties to anyone in the picket lines. This wasn't always the rule. "I was sent for replacement worker protection in Philadelphia," says Jermaine. "I'm from there, and I have to admit, seeing people for a company I was generally aware of being out of work did make me feel a little sad, and I remember towards the end I didn't really want to keep them out of work, since they were part of my hometown. But at the next job at this town in Ohio? I didn't know them, so there was no harm."
The Job Requires Utter Silence
Jermaine insists there's another reason small talk with the strikers isn't allowed: Anything they say can and will be used against them, in the court of public opinion. A huge part of any strike is rallying public sympathy, and that means getting the media to tell the right story. Journalists often huddle around the edges of a strike, hoping to see someone get maced or tased. The biggest risk to strikebreakers in that scenario is looking or sounding bad near a camera, and the simplest way to avoid both is to stay as silent as one of those life-sized nutcrackers who guard the Queen.
"Staff or workers or students there? Silent, unless they need directions or something urgent. Strikers or other union members? Silent. Random passerby? Silent." Otherwise, get ready for your offhand comment to become part of someone else's PR battle.
Or some "hey hey, ho ho" chant.
"I talked to a reporter at one auto strike about what it was like getting people past the line. I said something like 'It's going good.' The next day in the local paper, an article talked about the hardships the strikers were going through to make ends meet. Then there was my quote as a 'rebuttal' to that at the end. 'It's going good.' This was some local paper that 500 people read, but my boss still demanded to know who talked the next day, since it said it was a Huffmaster employee. I 'fessed up and was given night duty in the employee parking area at the hotel for a week. It made us seem heartless."
He also insists that they're the constant target of surveillance from the picket lines, with the other side always looking for dirt. "Sometimes, union members bring out these cheap long-range listening devices so they can get something from us. If someone asks us, 'Is the interim foreman in?' and we say no, this can tip them off to a possible meeting that's happening. That's why I was so pissed off when that new guy started talking with strikers -- if he mentions something little like that, then we hurt our employer."
The Real Target Of A Strike Is You
Strikes are all about public pressure. Unions want the company to come off as heartless and brutal, motivating consumers to boycott and politicians to take the workers' side. The company wants to portray unions as unreasonable and/or violent, so there's no backlash if they don't give in to demands. Both sides are in a race to claim victimhood.
"Ten years ago, there was a strike in Bedford, Indiana," says Jermaine, "and [the strikers] flat-out lied to the media. They told them we were whipping them with our belts and beating them. They even said we tried to run them over." That's how he sees it, anyway -- one news report included shocking accounts from the strikers about being viciously shoved in front of vehicles while strikebreakers screamed "Gun it!" One union member insisted he was gravely injured after security (or "goons" in his words) heartlessly ripped an American flag from his hands.
Whatever actually happened, we can probably all agree that when the riot cops step in, negotiations are officially a raging flop.
Jermaine, of course, disagrees. "We did take away signs, but only because we were worried they might damage our mini-buses. I can't say how some got injured, but we were definitely not throwing people in front of mini-buses. They were actually going in front to stop us. We were pulling them out of the way."
He was defensive about his company's role in the Bedford strike, but surprisingly upbeat about the whole, "grand struggle of labor against capital" thing. "It's all part of the experience. They block us from doing our job, we'll find ways around it. We try and clear them, they'll regroup in another place to stall everyone. It wears both sides down, and we all know from previous experience how to get on each other's nerves."
And, why shouldn't he be upbeat? His side has been on a half-century-long winning streak:
If you're not in a union, and a couple of colored lines on a graph don't mean anything to you, try this: Go to your boss tomorrow and mention, offhand, that you and the rest of the team are meeting later to discuss unionization.
Watch what happens.
Evan V. Symon is an interviewer, writer and interview finder guy for the personal experience team. Have an awesome experience/job you'd like to be part of for an article? Hit us up at firstname.lastname@example.org today!
For more insider perspectives, check out 5 Tips For Fixing America's Schools (From A Former Teacher) and 5 Brutal Reasons 75% Of Special Ed Teachers Quit.
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