Politics, workers rights set bar high for union success

Union-represented employees at St. Joseph and St. Clare hospitals went on strike last week – sort of. The 1,100 workers were off the job in an announced 24-hour walkout that included informational picketing. Then they went back to work.

Meanwhile, Longshore union members at West Coast ports, including Tacoma, aren’t on strike at all. Instead they’re engaging in a work slowdown, or at least that’s what the Pacific Maritime Association alleges. The ILWU says congestion, delays and productivity drops are the fault of management decisions and other factors.

Also meanwhile, the unhappiness of the Machinists union with Gov. Jay Inslee and U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen over a vote on a revised contract with Boeing to secure the 777X project seemed to have minimal effect on the electoral fortunes of at least one of them. Larsen, whose 2nd Congressional District stretches from Lynnwood to Bellingham and out into the San Juan islands, collected a little more than 60 percent of the vote.

If you’re a bit perplexed about the short-term accomplishments or long-term strategic objectives of these moves, at least from the objective of the workers and unions involved, you’re hardly alone. Many of the workers themselves, and officials of those unions, are trying to figure out whether there’s a net gain to these tactics.

What they’re much more certain of, however, is that the best-known and historically most powerful tool for making labor’s case in contract bargaining – the large-scale strike, or even the threat of one – is no longer viable.

That shift in thinking is reflected in a chart compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, reporting the number of work stoppages involving 1,000 or more workers from 1947 to 2013.

Last year, BLS says, there were 15 such work stoppages, involving 55,000 workers and 290,000 days idle.

That’s not a lot, especially when compared with as recent a year as 2000, when there were 39 such incidents. (In the recession-depth year of 2009, there were just five).

And 2000’s total doesn’t look like much compared with 1981, when there were 145 strikes of 1,000 or more workers. And 1981 pales in comparison to 1974, a particularly robust year for work stoppages, with 424 (a total you’d then have to go back to the early 1950s to find a match for).

The reasons for the marked decline are many, and the list of those reasons depends upon what perspective you’re coming at the issue from: outsourcing and offshoring and the rise of non-union competitors, management campaigns, laws and regulations, changing public attitudes, growth of industries such as technology in which labor representation is largely absent, economic downturns.

Whatever your nominees for contributing factors, the result has been to render the strike as not just ineffectual but in many cases damaging to those trying to wield it.

That calculation played a big part in the decision of members of the Machinists union to ratify an eight-year contract extension to an existing agreement, thereby foregoing bargaining that was looming in 2016. Union members weren’t happy about it, seeing the tradeoff as far more avoiding the stick than getting the carrot, but with Boeing’s growing production presence in South Carolina, and management’s perceived willingness to be done with the Puget Sound region, just enough figured it was the least worst of a bad set of options and voted to ratify.

But if strikes are off the table as a pressure tactic, what then? The IAM took out some of its frustration by announcing it would not endorse Larsen and criticizing Inslee for what it saw as a bias toward management in leaning on union members to allow a vote and to ratify Boeing’s offer.

The political approach doesn’t work, though, because there’s no effective or credible alternative to labor’s traditional partnership with Democrats. It wasn’t as though union leadership was going to slap itself on the forehead and say, “Darn, we should have gone with Rob McKenna. We’ll vote Republican next time.” Inslee knows this. The IAM knows that Inslee knows, and Inslee knows that … all right, you get the idea.

Further, labor is becoming as fractured as business is in terms of its political agenda. Arriving this week in the email inbox was a statement from the Laborers International Union of North America blasting “Senate Democrats’ Assault on the Working Class” for voting against the Keystone XL pipeline. Similarly, some labor unions in this state have been in favor of energy and rail projects that Inslee and others oppose.

How about picketing and limited-duration work stoppages such as were carried out at the hospitals? Many of the forces driving consolidation and cost-trimming within health care are well beyond the scope of a single contract negotiation to influence; they’re certainly beyond the ability to summarize on a picket sign or in a chant. The public might be inclined to sympathize with the workers’ issues, but the effect on their lives and own issues of those protests may be no greater than that generated by arrow-shaped sign twirlers seen dancing at intersections.

The Longshore slowdown is an alternative to completely shutting down the ports to get contract negotiations moving, but it has working against it both timing and trends. It certainly won’t endear the union to those whose shipments are delayed, or to port and regional public officials trying to make the case that West Coast ports are fast and efficient, or to shipping lines who are getting an expanded menu of options.

Are these then just exercises in futility? No they’re not – they’re experiments. Labor unions are tinkering to find something to replace or refine established tactics that no longer work. Some experiments will be duds. Some will blow up in union’s faces. Not that they need any more pressure, but they do need a few of those experiments to prove their effectiveness – that is, if they expect to retain any influence, relevance or membership.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at