What is a selective strike?

In the struggle between workers and bosses, uncertainty can be a great tool to force bosses to meet the demands of workers. One of the ways workers can take advantage of this uncertainty is with the selective strike.

A selective strike, also known as a “targeted strike,” is a strategy designed to stress specific parts of a shop, supply chain, or work schedule while creating an unpredictable environment for the bosses.

Instead of sending all workers out on strike (known as an “all-out strike”), this strategy shuts down the crucial sections of the process that are needed to keep the whole operation running while the remaining workers continue to work as usual. This allows the union to hit the bosses strategically while only drawing strike funds for those workers currently out on strike. The prompt, unforgiving “just-in-time” system that allows the global corporations to maximize profits while running smoothly also allows a small group of workers to bring an entire workplace or supply chain to a halt.

This strategy has been seen most recently in the UAW strike against the Big Three automakers. Autoworkers have struck several locations with no advanced warning of which to their employers, causing massive disruptions to their profits and giving the advantage to the workers. It’s also unclear to auto manufacturers whether more locations will be struck or when, further adding to the bosses’ confusion.

In a selective strike, workers not currently called to strike will generally perform practice pickets, community events, and rallies to show the boss they are ready to strike if needed. Individual workers face many pressures outside of work that influence them to work extra hours to make ends meet. Frequently workers will find that their workplaces are purposefully understaffed and that bosses use voluntary overtime to make production schedules. During a selective strike, workers not on strike can collectively refuse to work voluntary overtime. This increases pressure on the bosses strategically by affecting production timing. This tactic also foments confusion and fear among managers while also boosting solidarity among the workers as they see the managers squirm.

Benefits of a Selective Strike

Many strikes tend to have their strongest showings early on. Their highest picket and rally turnout, media attention, and overall buzz immediately following the call for a strike. As the fight draws out and the bargaining updates slowly trickle in, however, attendance and attention can taper off.

Meanwhile, selective strikes are able to maintain picket-line attendance and energy for longer periods of time. During selective strikes, the striking shops and plants have a twenty-four hour picket line presence, while the shops and plants waiting to be called to strike hold regularly scheduled practice pickets, with plans in place to walk out at any moment. This schedule of practice events and strike preparations encourages workers not on strike and their support systems to stay highly motivated and ready to walk out at any moment.

In addition to a strategy of targeting chokepoints in a workplace or supply chain, selective strikes strive for unpredictability. The bosses don’t know which workers, when, or sometimes even how the strike actions may occur. When the workers know what’s coming and the boss doesn’t, that gives workers the advantage. The unpredictability also encourages media to pay closer attention on a constant basis, rather than sit back and wait to hear any bargaining updates.

Examples of Selective Strikes

In addition to the actions of the UAW, two other examples of recent selective strikes were conducted by public-sector schoolteachers in Pennsylvania and by airline flight attendants. While taking place in quite different workplace environments, featuring dissimilar protections and regulations, both campaigns utilize strategies that hinder management’s ability to run the workplace, while also focusing on the importance of keeping management guessing.

In 1991, union schoolteachers in Bethlehem Area School District in Pennsylvania conducted a selective strike that saw the teachers alternate striking and working days. The school district was not informed until 8 p.m. or later each night whether the teachers would be working or striking the next day. Bethlehem teachers taught the first two days of school, then struck Monday and Tuesday, worked Wednesday, struck Thursday, and were back at work on Friday. This tactic prevented the district from hiring scabs and also forced administrators who hadn’t been in classrooms in quite awhile to fill in while the teachers were on the picket line.

AFA’s C.H.A.O.S. (Create Havoc Around Our System) strategy began with an Alaska Airlines contract dispute in 1993. After a contract cooling-off period, 24 flight attendants struck seven planes targeted by AFA-CWA without warning. The airline was so confused that they resorted to tactics such as removing seats from planes to minimize the amount of flight attendants needed and scheduling scab employees for every flight for two months since they had no idea which flight might be struck.

Battling through threats and suspensions, the CHAOS strikes continued. After winning an injunction in federal court, strikers were reinstated with full back pay. The court upheld the union’s legal right under the Railway Labor Act to utilize an intermittent strike strategy. With the threat of another round of CHAOS strikes and related work actions on the horizon, Alaska Airlines agreed to a new contract two weeks later.

AFA’s CHAOS strategy was effective because it used unpredictable methods to attack management’s weaknesses while bolstering the strengths of the workers. Whereas the boss usually has a strike playbook to go by, with AFA’s CHAOS, they were kept guessing, forced to react while the union acted.

Workers know their workplaces better than bosses do, and selective strike strategies like these show it.

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