By Greg R
2016 was a hot year for labor in the Philadelphia area. Five labor actions are especially noteworthy: the Verizon (CWA), Just Born (BCTGM), Philadelphia Orchestra, SEPTA (TWU) and APSCUF PA Higher Education workers strikes. All but one of these strikes was successful in gaining immediate concessions and we find it useful to look at the nature of these actions, what they achieved and how. We also find it important as revolutionary unionists to think about these actions in broader terms; as small parts of a larger possible rebuilding of militant labor activity in the Philadelphia area and beyond. We see this as necessary to win more concessions as well to be part of a broader social revolutionary movement to eventually bring about a positive alternative to capitalism. We believe that until this happens, class struggle will continue.
Verizon CWA Workers Strike
The Verizon strike lasted more than six weeks and included nearly 40,000 workers. It was ultimately successful in gaining concessions from management including keeping pensions and less flexibility for the company to outsource work. The Verizon strike was especially interesting because a particularly contentious issue was the company’s outsourcing operation in the Philippines. A CWA delegate who met with Verizon management in the Philippines was confronted with armed Verizon security and a swat team carrying automatic weapons. This is important in exposing the inherent extreme violent nature of class struggle as well as the importance of coordinating labor actions internationally to gain workers freedom and concessions. In addition, Verizon workers were successful in gaining community support. One of the ways they did this was filming scab crews blatantly violating safety codes, including one scab worker who was unable to get their ladder down from the truck, and posting the videos online. The workers gained a four-year contract with an overall 11 percent wage increase, as opposed to the 6.5 percent increase Verizon had proposed prior to the strike, as well as bonuses and profit sharing.
Just Born BCTGM Workers Strike
The Just Born workers in BCTGM Local 6 in Bethlehem PA went on strike just before Halloween. These workers make various candy which is popular at Halloween including marshmallow Peeps, Mike and Ike and Hot Tamales. This strike was primarily over pension and pay concessions and unfortunately was largely unsuccessful at preventing workers from being replaced with scab labor. About seventy union members ended up crossing the line to return to work without a contract, for fear of losing their jobs permanently which hindered the strike action. A lawsuit filed by the union against Just Born regarding their replacing various employees pensions with 401(k) plans is currently pending in federal court. This strike is particularly interesting because Just Born filed a lawsuit against BCTGM for violating a no-strike clause in their previous contract which has now expired. We believe that no-strike clauses in labor contracts violate the basic worker right to strike and must be avoided to the extent workers can. In addition, workers should not necessarily be afraid to violate no-strike clauses because large mass labor actions historically have been successful at outright ignoring court injunctions and getting courts and employers to back down. One of the most important ways working class people can exhibit their power is by withholding their labor and we must never forget that.
Philadelphia Orchestra Strike
The orchestra strike was a walkout by both Philadelphia and Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra members who coordinated together to recover pay lost previously. The orchestra members rejected last-ditch talks to avert the strike and instead walked out on opening night to picket. At the same time, the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra also went on strike. Orchestra members noted that their pay had been cut in recent years and they were making less than musicians in the nation’s other leading orchestras. The strike was successful and ended in two days with concessions including a raise of more than 2 percent. In addition, the Orchestra musicians were successful in calling for increasing the size of the orchestra by one member. The fact that orchestra members walked out to picket on opening night is noteworthy because it increased the power of their action by making it more expensive for the bosses to concede to demands as an incredible amount of revenue was lost during the strike.
SEPTA TWU Workers Strike
The SEPTA workers union strike was their ninth strike since 1975 and brought many trains and buses throughout the Philadelphia area to a screeching halt, in an effort to make sure workers received a contract to protect their pay and pensions. Noteworthy regarding this strike is that SEPTA workers were very successful in building community and citywide support for their strike. They did not get support from the city or state governments and especially PA Governor Tom Wolf, a Democrat, who threatened to file a brief to the court to end the strike immediately and force SEPTA workers back to work. Wolf is quoted as saying “This strike has been devastating for so many individuals and their families and has created extreme hardships for the city and for businesses. The time for it to end is now.” Of course, employers and bureaucrats like Wolf don’t get to decide when strikes end, workers do. The strike ended in about a week with major concessions for SEPTA workers.
APSCUF PA Higher Education Workers Strike
The APSCUF PA Higher Education strike lasted 11 days and included various workers in higher education organized with APSCUF throughout the entire state, including tenured faculty as well as adjunct instructors and temporary workers. This is important to note because concessions won by the strike included increased pay and job security for adjunct instructors, in exchange for tenured faculty taking slightly lower increases. This exhibits a high level of solidarity between temporary and permanent employees which is very important to win demands in higher education. One thing that is noteworthy about this strike is that the administration failed in its attempts to replace the teachers with scabs who were unfamiliar with the courses and course material. This happened not only in the classroom but also virtually, as they attempted to replace instructors who teach classes online as well. This is an important thing to consider regarding what control online instructors have over courses taught online in the event of a strike, and how do we consider the nature of “virtual” picket lines. Another thing to note is the importance of including students in higher education labor actions as much as possible since they also have grievances against the administration which need to be resolved, including skyrocketing tuition costs.
Conclusion & Post-Strike Thoughts
The level of labor action that occurred in the Philadelphia area in 2016 we find very encouraging as we head into the new year. Things which are especially encouraging include the fact that workers in the Philadelphia area are increasingly seeing labor organization and engaging in strikes as a way to collectively build and exhibit their working-class power and win immediate demands, which they were largely successful in doing. As radical libertarian unionists we see this as important not only for winning demands now but also for building militant working class self-activity in general. We believe that labor struggle will exist as long as capitalism does until the working class collectively gains direct control of the existing economy and replaces it with a positive alternative. We believe that this can be done via forming mass revolutionary working class organizations, including revolutionary worker unions. We also believe it’s important that these working-class organizations be self-managed and be run by rank-and-file members themselves, in a directly democratic fashion – as opposed to in a top-down fashion by union bureaucrats. We look forward to a continued increase in worker militancy and self-activity in the Philadelphia area and will be involved in it in any way we can.