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Philly’s Union Council Offers Strike School for Workers

The program is aimed at both union leaders and rank-and-file members and will focus on what unions should do before a walkout, how to prepare financially for going without pay, what to do on the picket line and more.

Temple University students walk out of class on Feb. 15, 2023
Temple University students walk out of class on Feb. 15, 2023, in support of the teaching assistants and research assistants, some of whom are on strike. (Jessica Griffin/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)
Work stoppages by labor unions are having a moment. Several high-profile strikes have taken place locally in less than a year, including Temple University graduate student workers, Philadelphia Museum of Art staff, Rutgers University faculty, and Teamsters at the Liberty Coca-Cola distribution center.

Noticing this, leaders of the AFL-CIO Philadelphia Council figured a lot of workers might have questions. Their solution: Strike School.

“People who are involved in and leading unions haven’t gone on strikes in many many years,” said Jana Korn, organizing director for the council, which comprises over 100 local labor unions. “There’s this generational, institutional knowledge that’s missing.”

The council’s first strike school is aimed at both union leaders and rank-and-file members. Drawing on lessons learned and best practices from recent work stoppages, the classes take place over two Saturdays, May 20 and June 3, and cost $25 per person.

The council is continuing to take registrants, said Korn, with 30 people signed up as of May 12.

The first day of the school will focus on what unions should do before a walkout, including how to strategically time a strike so it makes the most impact possible, and how to prepare financially for a potentially lengthy period of time without pay. While the recent stoppages in Philadelphia ended after a few days or weeks, some go on much longer, such as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette strike, which has continued for more than half a year. Unions should be thinking about the escalation of their campaigns on a long timeline, said Korn.

“It does require a lot of setup to do in a way that keeps everyone together,” said Matt Ford, an organizer and member of the Temple University Graduate Students’ Association (TUGSA), which went on strike earlier this year. “We were ready and members were kept in the loop about all the possibilities of what could happen.”

The second day of strike school will focus on what to do when the strike begins, on the picket line, and throughout the work stoppage until an agreement is reached. The class will also discuss the aftermath.

“We’ve heard from folks [that] one of the things they weren’t prepared for is what it feels like to go back to work,” Korn said. “Your boss is still your boss. You have to figure out how to still do your job every day.”

Instructors will include Korn and other council staff, who received input from experts at The LABOR School at Pennsylvania State University, as well as leaders of TUGSA and the art museum workers’ union.

Ford said a class on how to strike would have been useful before TUGSA set up its picket line. Instead, organizers and members turned to books, articles and calling around for advice, he said.

“There’s really been a whole generation or two that has not been really involved in striking,” said Paul Dannenfelser, an organizer with AFSCME District Council 47, which represents workers in cultural institutions, nonprofits, higher education and government.

Dannenfelser, who was involved in the Art Museum workers’ strike, noted the extensive preparations required by organizers, union leaders and members. Loss of pay is always a top concern, he said, and unions must have conversations to ensure workers are willing and able to stop working.

Timing is also a careful calculation, Dannenfelser said, pointing to recent examples. At the Art Museum, the opening of a high-profile exhibit created additional pressure on management to find a way to get the union back to work. At Rutgers University, the end of the semester was just a few weeks off when thousands of faculty stepped away from teaching and many classes were canceled, creating questions around year-end exams and graduations.

“Each union has to do an analysis [of] what is the major pressure point on their employer, and plan their timing for a strike around that,” Dannenfelser said.

Korn said much of the instruction is universal across industries and jobs, but acknowledged that some industries and jobs are bound by special regulations requiring advance notice of a strike or otherwise limiting work stoppages. Strike school may touch on how to remain strategic without violating those rules, she said.

“We want to provide people with as much legal information as we can without being lawyers,” she said.

Ford, of TUGSA, said he would like to see more training opportunities for workers and organizers, as he expects the wave of strikes to continue.

The youngest generation entering the workforce seems to be more willing to act collectively, Dannenfelser said, facing stagnant wages, large amounts of student loan debt and expensive health care and other benefits.

“The really positive thing is they want to do this for themselves,” Dannenfelser said.

©2023 The Philadelphia Inquirer, LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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