Notes on Striking with My Union
This post is a departure from thinking about foreign policy, but it is about power politics. The bottom line is I’m going on strike. I’m a member of the Tertiary Education Union—which represents staff at universities across New Zealand. 95% of members voted to strike, which is a remarkable level of unity. So now it’s happening.
I don’t know how much I can say about the voting or strike plans, but you can read about it here. That story explains how the union negotiations with each university were coming to a head at the same time, and management at each university was refusing to even entertain the union’s basic demand for cost of living increases (which we’ve been denied since Covid happened even though for a lot of us our workload effectively doubled over the same period). So our representatives organized a mass, cross-university collective action (New Zealand universities are all public institutions).
I’ve been studying US labor history on the side during the Trump years, and I track organizing campaigns happening across the United States in real-time—at Trader Joe’s, Amazon, Starbucks, Home Depot, Uber etc.
But if I’m being honest, I don’t know what labor culture is like in New Zealand vice the United States. I’ve never previously been part of a strike action (I’ve never even been part of a union). I find the fact of confrontation with management a little unnerving. And I’m actually pretty happy with my job situation all things considered; academic pay in New Zealand is WAY higher than in most US universities.
Even though my colleagues and I have all taken an effective pay cut the past two years, my salary is still nice enough that I barely notice. Still, joining the union had nothing to do with my personal situation—I saw it concretely as how we get better living conditions for short-term/contingent staff and lower wage employees, and abstractly as how we counter-balance the power of capital in society.
I have a complicated history with this subject because, growing up in Central Florida, my dad worked the night shift at UPS loading trucks—literally backbreaking work—in order to put himself through community college during the day. This was when I was in high school. UPS forced him to be a member of their union, which he deeply resented. When the teamsters organized a company-wide strike in 1997, my dad broke solidarity and crossed the picket line.
I had no political consciousness at all then, but it made me very uneasy. I pressed him on why he would do it when people who were crossing the picket line were being called scabs. He explained that he got special pay—more than normal—plus extra shifts. He was anti-union to begin with. He didn’t vote to go on strike. And he had a family to take care of. At bottom, I couldn’t fault his personal reasoning. He wasn’t going to let his wife and kids starve in the name of a politics that he disagreed with in the first place.
So I get why he did it. And it must’ve been psychologically difficult to weather the peer pressure and intimidation he suffered from the people he worked with. But I still think it was wrong. Like, how did he get that UPS job in the first place? Because his mom had been a UPS teamster once upon a time, and she knew those guys. And why was a UPS job more attractive than any other low-skill job in the ‘90s? Because the teamsters had fought over the decades for a living wage and safe-ish working conditions. Imagine how depraved the landscape of low-skill work would be without unions.
The reason I support labor organizing is because it is one of the only vehicles workers have to fight for their livelihoods. Modern capitalism tilts power overwhelmingly in favor of the bosses—owners of capital. The world has grown more and more economically precarious as a result.
Unions agitate against the trend of power concentrating further and further in the hands of a few. They’re a counterweight on the side of fairness and democracy. There's nothing more American than being on the side of the little guy. Most of all, what kind of f’d up system depends on pitting individuals against each other, forcing them to choose between feeding their families or showing solidarity with their fellow workers?
The fact that my dad faced the choice of putting us on the breadline (not an exaggeration) or siding with plutocrats against his peers is outrageous. And unions are the only institutional form that gives workers the power to agitate for their interests. I guess I see them as the only way to challenge the system from a premise of least-harm.
The good news is that I'm not the only one who sees it that way.