Today is a momentous day, dear readers! For today I’m using ~*current events*~ to teach you a relevant thing about the world. Instead of pulling it straight out of the depths of my own ass, like usual. You’re welcome!
The employees of King Soopers—one of the largest grocery store chains in Colorado, and my personal neighborhood grocery store—just went on strike and won. And while the actual labor strike itself only lasted a total of ten days, it was a textbook example of the genre. From the workers’ motivations, to the company’s reaction, to the negotiations, to the community support, we hit every step in the classic life cycle of a strike.
And much like the Krebs Cycle, it was orderly, justified, and important to all life on earth. I’m proud that I could contribute to the labor strike in a tiny way, as a supportive consumer. Let me show you just how so you too can enjoy the smugness of supporting a labor strike!
What’s a labor strike, anyway?
A labor strike is essentially a method of negotiation. It’s part of the wider practice of “collective bargaining” that is usually organized by a labor union. Here’s an example of how it works:
Workers: “Hey, could we have better protective gear so we aren’t injured on the job so often?”
Company: “Nah. We don’t think you need it.”
Workers: “Except we really, really do.”
Company: “Here’s a straw so you can suck it up.”
Workers: “Ok. None of us are working again until we get what we need. And we’re going to tell the public and be really brazen about it so everyone knows you’re being an asshole. Also, if you try to hire people to replace us, we’re going to get in their way.”
[some time passes]
Company: “I’m losing too much money. So fine. Have your protective gear.”
Workers: “Great! We’ll get back to work now.”
That’s a strike! It’s a way for labor to use the strength of their numbers to get a say in how they’re treated on the job. An individual worker might not have the power or financial backing to make a difference at their workplace. But all together, workers on strike can be very, very powerful.
Common reasons for a labor strike
There are lots of reasons for a labor strike. Here are just a few:
- Not enough compensation. No one should have to go on strike to get a raise. But it happens all the time.
- Hazardous working conditions. Lots of people take dangerous jobs. But they have the reasonable expectation that their employer will provide them with protective gear, or put measures in place to mitigate the danger. A company’s cavalier attitude to worker safety can be a great reason for a strike.
- Inconsistent cost of living raises. If the workforce hasn’t had a cost of living raise in a decade, and their employer refuses to negotiate a COL raise, that can be grounds for a strike.
- Inhumane treatment. Infamously, Amazon employees pee in bottles because they aren’t allowed proper breaks to relieve themselves. In my humble opinion, this means they should strike, like, yesterday.
- Insufficient training. If employees are repeatedly asked to do something for which they aren’t trained, or is beyond the scope of their job description, that’s strike-worthy.
- Unfair hiring and labor practices. If you’re hired at $8 an hour, and a year later a coworker is hired at $10 an hour, and you’re denied a $2 raise… you’d probably want to go on strike.
Coronavirus has spurred on the fight for labor rights
In the case of the King Soopers strike, they were striking for better pay, among other reasons. Much like my favorite Lizzo song, that’s something to which we all can relate!
For the King Soopers employees, their low compensation was a sore spot. You see, the CEO of the parent company received a bonus of $22 million in 2020… and the employees got their pandemic hazard pay cut after only two months. As we’re two years into this apocalyptic plague, that’s uh… kind of a slap in the face.
But the King Soopers employees were also striking for safety reasons. This interminable pandemic means that grocery store workers are tasked with enforcing mask mandates. And they wanted the right to defend themselves against customers who got violent when asked to put on a damn mask.
In other words, coronavirus was a catalyst for the labor strike in more ways than one.
1. Never cross a picket line
The first way to support a labor strike is very simple: don’t cross the fucking picket line.
This can be pretty easy if it’s a literal, physical picket line. In the case of King Soopers, employees formed lines around parking lots and in front of store doors and held signs explaining the strike. It was pretty obvious to anyone trying to shop what was going on. To cross the picket line, you had to look into the eyes of a striking worker.
Avoid that awkward social interaction and support collective bargaining by just shopping elsewhere, k?
The goal of a picket line is to kick the company right in the wallet. If they aren’t making money on customers, it incentivizes rapid negotiations with striking workers! All you have to do is just not spend your money there.
It’s harder to avoid crossing a picket line if it’s not a physical picket line. For example, if a manufacturer’s employees go on strike, and you don’t live near the factory, you’re not likely to encounter a picket line. So in this case, you just need to not buy the goods made by the striking workers.
And you should let them know you’re not crossing the picket line! When I drove or walked by my King Soopers, I waved, honked, and cheered for the workers in the picket line. They waved back. Wholesome!
In these days of near-permanent social distancing and virtual community spaces, it’s even easier to express your support without leaving your home. Leave striking workers a comment on a news article or social media post to say “I support you and think you deserve to be treated like a human at your job.”
2. Spread the word about the labor strike
Tell everyone you know that you support the strike and why. Encourage them to join you if they can. This can be one of the purer uses of social media! Not quite as pure as videos of dogs unsuccessfully carrying giant sticks through doorways, but close.
In the case of the King Soopers strike, it was only for the grocery stores in the greater Denver metro area. So it’s not like I had to make sure all my Facebook friends were committed to not crossing the picket line. (Fuck, I really need to delete my Facebook account. But then how will my elderly Nonna leave wildly enthusiast comments on every one of my selfies???) I just had to make sure my local friends and neighbors knew about the strike.
If you don’t have a busybody friend/neighbor to keep you in the loop, set up an email news alert for “labor strike” on
your favorite search engine Google. (It’s Google. We all know it’s Google.)
Individuals’ support for a labor strike is important. But just as a strike functions on the principle of strength in numbers, so does community support for a strike. Spread the word! Spread solidarity!
3. Reward competitors for good behavior
I got a Costco membership when King Soopers was on strike. Why? Because Costco is famous for treating its employees well and I believe in rewarding good behavior.
But also because capitalism is a competition. Similar businesses compete with each other for customers. And it really stings when the competition wins. In the case of the King Soopers strike, supporting Costco would…
- Take money that would otherwise have gone to King Soopers and put it directly in the pocket of their competition.
- Demonstrate that fair and humane working conditions and compensation for employees matters to customers.
So when you want to support a strike, find their most labor-friendly competitor and shop your tender little consumerist heart out. They’ll fucking hate it.
Book recommendation time! Tanja Hester talks a lot about voting with consumer dollars in her new book, Wallet Activism: How to Use Every Dollar You Spend, Earn, and Save as a Force for Change. Her advice was instrumental in helping me understand how I could truly follow through with my support for the King Soopers labor strike. Check out our interview with Tanja about Wallet Activism for more.
When the dust settles…
A few weeks after it began, the King Soopers strike was over. The employees won! While they didn’t get all their demands met, they got the raise and the protections they were looking for. And it only took ten days of striking to wrap those negotiations up.
If you can, talk to the workers who went on strike afterwards. This can be as simple as saying “Congratulations to you and your coworkers on winning the recent strike!” or “I’m so glad you guys are back to work and getting treated fairly.” A lil’ positive reinforcement goes a long way. And strikers should know they had the support of their community the whole time.
Solidarity is important
“I’m happy with my working conditions and I’m not in a union. So what the hell does this have to do with me?”
We live in a consumer economy. Unless you’re a subsistence farmer living off the grid in Idaho (in which case… can we be friends??? I have so many questions!), you rely on the labor of others for the food, products, and services you use every day.
I guess you can be cool with treating the people providing that labor like shit… but personally, I prefer to know that the person stocking my groceries can pay their bills and come to work without fearing for their safety. It’s less—what’s the word?—exploitative. Less monumentally dickish.
And not to put too fine a point on it, but Idaho wilderpeople aside, we’re all part of the same system. Improved labor conditions and rights for one group pushes the whole system towards improved labor conditions and rights for all. Our cultural understanding of acceptable work practices shifts in a positive direction with every successful labor strike. A rising tide lifts all boats and all that.
So you should care. A lot.
When supporting a labor strike gets… dicey
Not everyone can support striking workers. And I want to let those people know right now that they are officially off the hook. Don’t trouble yourselves with guilt or self-loathing. We all have shit going on and your shit might not be compatible with a strike.
If you’re broke and your employer is vehemently anti-union… you might want to keep your solidarity with the labor strike quiet. Don’t put your job at risk. The strikers will understand.
Or maybe you’re all out of options and the only way to survive is by crossing a picket line. In which case: that sucks. But I will fight anyone who gives you shit for crossing a picket line at the only grocery store in your neighborhood when your car is broken down and you desperately need baby formula. Do what you need to do to survive. After all, that’s what the striking workers are trying to do too.
If you love it when we Bitches get all excited about labor rights… great news! We do it a lot:
- Are Unions Good or Bad?
- Should You Trust Your Human Resources Department?
- Labor Shortages ARE the Father of American Business Ethics, Maury Povich Confirms
- How to Use Labor Shortages to Your Advantage
- Ethical Consumption: How to Pollute the Planet and Exploit Labor Slightly Less
Have you ever supported a labor strike? Or better yet, have you ever been part of a labor strike? How did it go? Tell us all about it in the comments below!