The power of solidarity

Worker's Correspondence

Last week at the monthly meeting of the Electrical Workers Minority Caucus here in the Chicago area, our union local vice president mentioned that the Laborers’ strike had been settled “very favorably” thanks in large part to the great solidarity shown by the other construction locals.

What that solidarity means in essence is that no worker of any trade would ever dare cross a picket line. I experienced this personally when our job was picketed during the strike. It was a picket like I had never seen before.

I feel like I can remember walking a million picket lines in my lifetime — the American Airlines strike where I got a bright pink T-shirt and was young enough to be called cute and like it, the Domino sugar strike in New York, and, of course, the Congress Hotel workers strike that is still going on in downtown Chicago. To me, a good picket had lots of people and lots of noise, enough to make people notice and convince them not to cross.

By those standards, the Laborers’ picket was a total failure. As I walked to work past several downtown construction sites, I saw four or five two-, three- or maybe four-person picket lines with one sign each, silently guarding the entrances to the sites. So how was it that a failure of a picket, a picket that was surely typical of all of those that could be found sprinkled throughout the Chicago area during the days of the strike, somehow achieved its goals?

Our job only had one laborer at the time of the strike and the question was not whether or not anyone would cross the picket line, but rather whether or not the Laborers’ union would bother to put one up at our job. There was no question, no doubt, not one of us would cross that picket line. There was no need for noise or masses of people. No one even seemed to expect it. Sure I heard plenty of complaints about missing pay and work time, but it all seemed to be accepted as an inevitable part of the job. And as a matter of fact, it is.

According to our negotiated contract we have the right to refuse to cross any picket line in our way of getting to work. The day of the strike arrived and, still unsure of what the process would be, I left for work as usual. I arrived to find about 50 guys gathered in front of the site drinking coffee and gossiping about what was happening in the negotiations. The only news besides what we got from word of mouth was a short article in the Chicago Sun-Times that claimed the laborers were rejecting a $2-an-hour raise in wages and benefits. What we were hearing principally was that the contractors were pushing a tiered scale that would pay some workers as much as 50 percent less for doing work that was considered less heavy work.

In the end, all I know is that we all missed two days of work and the Laborers’ contract was finally settled with a $12 increase in wages and benefits over four years. A huge part of that will surely go towards maintaining their health benefits, but over all it was still a good contract.

— Megan Marshall (meguita@sbcglobal.net) is a fourth-year electrical apprentice and member of IBEW Local 134.