The History of Wildcat Strikes

By Mitchell Melançon

The continued “maturation” of late-stage capitalism saw multiple societal trends intersect violently in the 2020s. The Covid-19 pandemic intersected with real-time climate collapse and ongoing state violence against Indigenous, black, and other racialized people, which triggered spontaneous mass mobilisations against these multiple oppressions. That spontaneous display of anger towards the status quo spilled over into the labour movement as well. With decades of neoliberal austerity and outsourcing, union representation in Canada has fallen to only 30%. At the same time, the pandemic killed off and disabled a record number of workers and forced even more into early retirement. Workers now wield more economic leverage while being less organised than earlier periods of labour struggle. This combination of material factors built up to “The Great Resignation,” where individual workers eschew any company loyalty to take advantage of a labour shortage to maximise individual gains. But bubbling under the surface of this hyper-individualised approach to bargaining with the bosses is a resurgence in strike action of multiple flavours. Unions in multiple sectors struck for safer work conditions, better pay, an end to two-tiered contracts, and more. Yet many non-unionised workers, particularly front-line workers, also stood up and collectively struck in illegal job actions known as wildcat strikes. Given historic levels of worker upheaval and societal crisis combined with low levels of union representation, it is imperative to understand the wildcat strike as a tactic. By looking at important wildcat strikes in North American history, from the Pullman strike of 1894 to the 2020 wildcat of Albertan healthcare workers, we will highlight important lessons for the labour movement going forward.

The wildcat strike is a jungle ambush compared to the trench warfare of more traditional and legal forms of strike action. Instead of the union leading a strike following a vote, a wildcat strike proceeds without union consent. For this reason, even non unionised workers can engage in a wildcat strike. In essence, the workers walk off the job without any notice to their employer and attempt to outmanoeuvre the bosses in their attempt to hire scabs or prepare a lockout. And just like in the jungle warfare tactics of the Viet Cong that stymied the invading American army, the inherent element of surprise of a wildcat strike can tip the scales away from the powerful towards the powerless — from the bosses to the workers. 

While unions represent a massive historical victory for the working class, many contemporary unions lost their radical edge after succumbing to opportunism, corruption, and an overall top-down approach. On top of having the element of surprise, wildcat strikes can keep these unions true to their workers by providing an alternative avenue for striking. This is not to downplay the potential risks that wildcat strikes pose as an alternative to union-led job action though. Wildcat Strikes oftentimes end in termination of striking workers if they fail. Thus, such job actions are ill-advised unless the absence of the striking workers’ immediately and palpably impacts production or service.

With these facts considered, wildcat strikes remain an important concept for workers to understand and to implement. A great way for one to truly understand a concept and best prepare to implement a theory into practice requires looking to the past. By analysing the most disastrous and successful wildcat strikes, let’s avoid the pitfalls of an ahistorical analysis.

One of the earliest and most important strikes of the modern labour movement, the Pullman strike, was actually a wildcat strike. The strike started when workers of the Pullman railroad plant formed a  delegation to present their complaints to George M. Pullman. These complaints included starvation wages, a 16-hour workday, and poor living conditions within the company town, which has now been assimilated as a small neighbourhood into south-side chicago. He dismissed the workers’ delegation and fired them all. Immediately after, the workers held a spontaneous strike vote, which resulted in the emptying of the entire plant despite only 35 percent of workers at the Pullman plant being represented by a union. Rather than the union leading the strike, the entirety of the unionised and non-unionised workers collectively walked off the job.

Then, in solidarity with the Pullman workers, the ARU (American Railway Union) refused to operate any trains with Pullman train cars. The ARU boycott, however, resulted in collateral damage with multiple workers being fired. This sparked a domino effect of wildcat strikes in solidarity with those fired workers resulting in more than 130,000 workers walking off their job site and bringing industry across the country to a halt. The job stoppage succeed in inflicting great damage to the economic interests of the Pullman railroad plant, losing the company almost 5 million dollars (more than 164 million dollars today) in profit, but instead of winning gains, the strike was brought to a brutal and violent end on July 20th, 1894 following an injunction from the Grover Cleveland administration issued earlier that month. For 18 days, the workers resisted mightily against the heel of the state, but after the death of 30 workers, the strike officially came to a close. Alongside the government crackdown, the lack of public support ultimately did in the striking workers who all lost their jobs.

The example of the Pullman strike shows that when implemented correctly, wildcat strikes effectively harness the inherent economic leverage workers yield by shutting down industry before the bosses can react. Compare the complete shutdown of rail infrastructure achieved by the spontaneous Pullman action with the relatively uninterrupted rail service experienced following the recent International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) strike action of signal operators in Toronto. After giving three days’ notice, 96 signal operators crucial for the operation of the Union Station Rail Corridor walked off the job in a legal strike. This notice allowed their employer, the “public corporation” Metrolinx, to secure highly-paid scabs to operate the complicated manual interlock signalling system. However, it is also undeniable that the striking Pullman railroad workers took on incredible risk and lost life and work. but by contrasting these unsuccessful wildcat strikes with wildcat strikes that won gains, it becomes clear what is necessary to make the strategy work. 

Since 1928, the postal service workers of Canada have been “represented” by the Canadian Postal Employee Association (CPEA). While this employee association was originally given as a concession to the early labour mobilisation of postal workers in Canada, it served little function for decades being described as “close to useless.” The workers did not benefit from collective bargaining, and bad working conditions, low pay, and strenuous work loads nearly ran them into the ground. Nevertheless, the workers persisted and began organising outside of the union, and during the month of July in 1965, Canadian postal workers in Montreal  and Vancouver walked off of their jobs in a wildcat strike. 

Soon after, postal workers from 30 other cities joined in. Such wide participation resulted  in a total shutdown of the Canadian postal service for 22 days. This worker solidarity between postal workers also benefited from a mass outpouring of public support, a difference maker for a successful wildcat strike.The solidarity between the general public of Canada and strikers played a large part in preventing a violent crackdown as seen in the Pullman strike, where workers lacked solidarity from the general American public. And where the Pullman strike ended in a violent government crackdown and the strikers losing their jobs, the 1965 Canadian Postal workers’ strike ended up winning the strikers better wages, better working conditions, a new union and played a large role in winning the right to strike and collectively bargain for public sector workers in Canada.

Another more recent example of the successful usage of the wildcat strike strategy is the recent Amazon workers walk out of March 2022. This strike contributed to the larger unionisation push within Amazon, and is emblematic of a swell of successful wildcat strikes since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.  With a rapid degradation of working conditions during the pandemic, conflict between the workers of Amazon and their bosses boiled over like at many other companies around the world. Due to the lack of an official union, workers first began organising under the banner of Amazonians United and held unionisation votes at multiple facilities. 

Amazonians United continually raised issues concerning their working conditions, which included a petition signed by six warehouses earlier this year in December 2021 that blasted Amazon for reducing employee break time from 20 to 10 minutes and for stagnant wages. Instead of responding to worker concerns in good faith, Amazon routinely ignores these concerns and instead attempts to illegally intimidate organisers. This poor response resulted in a coordinated wildcat strike breaking out across several of the signatory warehouses. 

During a night shift on the 16th of March, 2022, workers walked out at two Amazon delivery stations in Queens, New York and another in Marlboro, Maryland demanding a $3 USD raise and a reinstatement of 20-minute breaks. It remains unclear whether or not Amazon will give in to workers’  demands but it also seems that the participating workers have not faced any major retribution from the company. As well, this particular strike action did add significant momentum to the Amazon labour movement. Within a few weeks of this wildcat strike, the nearby JFK8 New York fulfilment centre won the first Amazon union in a major victory!

Merely five workers walked out at the Queens plant, but that was more than enough to bring operations to a halt. The relevance of the wildcat strike will only increase into the modern day with automation reducing the number of coworkers to the single digits and a labour shortage giving workers more leverage  — merely convincing a few people to take part and hold strong can bring an entire delivery station to a halt. Likewise, as seen in the Pullman strike, workers can face termination as a retributory measure from their employer if the company feels like they can hire more workers from outside of the company to replace the strikers, but one cause for the lack of retribution in the case of the Amazon wildcat strike could be the ongoing labour shortage. Without a surplus of labourers to replace dissident workers, we see the scales of power tipping towards the workers throughout the country. 

A much less successful example of a wildcat strike is the 2020 wildcat of Albertan healthcare workers. On October 26th, 2020, 900 healthcare workers walked off their job sites across Alberta in a wildcat strike after United Conservative Party (UCP) premier Jason Kenney announced aggressive privatisation of the healthcare system in Alberta. While union leaders stood alongside the workers, a lack of solidarity between unionised and non-unionised workers at the facilities led to the very quick downfall of the strike. The employer called in non-unionised workers soon after the beginning of the strike to fill the vacated positions, and the strike would soon fold with almost all striking workers being disciplined by the Alberta Health Services (AHS). A low level of solidarity and class consciousness even led to the Alberta NDP, led by Rachel Notley, to repudiate the wildcat strike as “deeply concerning” and putting forward the false dichotomy that patient safety trumps workers’ rights. Instead, a labour movement built on the intersection of our common struggles and solidarity would recognize that both patients and workers suffer under the UCP privatisation push and that mass mobilisation of workers is necessary to win gains for both. 

 Through examination of the history of wildcat strikes, multiple clear lessons can be learnt. Firstly, wildcat strikes represent an effective yet risky method of strike action. They utilise the element of surprise to their advantage, giving employers little time to hire scabs or otherwise prepare, which can completely sabotage ongoing production or service. In a successful wildcat, this increased economic pressure on the bosses gives workers more leverage and increases the chance of winning gains. But in almost all circumstances, wildcat strikes lack the legal protections that other strike actions enjoy. Because of this lack of protection, workers  face retributory firings or other punishment. But the biggest lesson to be learnt from wildcat strikes is the absolute necessity of solidarity. Solidarity between workers within plants helps mitigate the risk through the sheer inconvenience of having to discipline all of the workers in a plant, and solidarity between workers within society helps mitigate the risk by pressuring corporations into not taking disciplinary action due to bad public relations and possible boycotts. 

Another much broader lesson about the relationship between the state, strike actions, and capitalism can also be gleaned. In a capitalist society, the state will always function to preserve capitalism — the private ownership of the means of production. Never will the state give legal protections to any job action that challenges the class nature of society, but concessions to the working class, like the right to unionise, can be ripped from the bosses’ hands.This is not to say that one type of strike action is inherently superior to another, but rather, both represent tools and tactics available to the working class to forward the overall class struggle towards true revolution struggle. We see examples of wildcat strikes leading to successful unionisation drives. Conversely, legal union-led strikes can provide cover for spin-off wildcat strikes. All tactics should be carefully weighed against the ultimate goal of class society.

Strike action and particularly wildcat strikes show us that solidarity is at the backbone of every truly revolutionary act against capitalism. Workers standing alone can never stand up to the boss —they require solidarity, someone to have their back. In legally-protected job actions, the capitalist state provides some protection, but for any strike actions that truly threatens the class order of society, which due to their very nature will lack legal protections under a capitalist state, someone else must have their back. This task of solidarity naturally falls to other workers who also suffer wage slavery and exploitation. We saw this solidarity when the workers of Amazon had each other’s backs, or how the workers of Canada supported postal workers. Wildcat strikes show that the most important revolutionary condition is solidarity and class consciousness throughout the nation, and this lesson should guide how we organise ourselves as socialists and unionists. It should be our primary goal as socialists to spread class consciousness and solidarity to all people first and foremost, and it is of the utmost importance that we do not fall into innesential infighting. Alone and divided , we workers are powerless, but standing united, we the workers can take our destiny into our own hands and break our collective shackles.