LABOR Social Change Movements Are Winning Big, Thanks to Rigorous Strategy

NEWSWEEK, Deepak Bhargava and Stephanie Luce, December 11, 2023

Recent victories of today’s progressive social movements show us real change is possible if we use smart, rigorous strategies. The right has known this for years. It’s past time we catch up.

Amid growing threats to our climate, economy, and democracy, one thing has become increasingly clear: those who care about confronting these challenges need to get smarter about strategy.

We’ve seen right-wing extremists make enormous gains on everything from abortion restrictions to anti-trans legislation, and we’d be foolish to believe their war on our rights will slow down anytime soon. They’ve done so by being laser focused on strategy: specifically dividing and weakening their opposition. The assault on voting rights or on unions through state legislation are both highly strategic efforts to weaken pillars of the progressive coalition. The same goes for the moral panics about trans rights or critical race theory the right is relentlessly pushing.

To help point today’s activists in the right direction, we wrote a book around seven strategies that, when used properly, can help progressives win some of our biggest battles ahead. These timeless strategies were deployed by some of our nation’s most successful grassroots movements—from the abolition of slavery to the New Deal to the civil rights movement—in the face of enormous opposition, and we’ve seen a number of them resurrected to great effect in the past year by workers, voters, and progressive coalitions who’ve enacted sweeping and significant change, even with the odds heavily stacked against them.

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Take, for example, the use of disruption to stop business as usual and build economic power. This time-tested strategy used by workers throughout history led to a major victory when auto workers at Ford Motor, Stellantis, and General Motors reached tentative agreements with their employers for record 25 percent raises nearly six weeks after the United Auto Workers (UAW) began a growing wave of strikes against the Big Three. These workers’ win is an exemplary testament to the power of prolonged, creative, and unpredictable disruption to bring about a desired result. As we write in our book, disruption is the ability to stop those in power from doing what they want to do and to break up the status quo. After their union contracts expired last month, that’s exactly what thousands of workers from the Big Three automakers did when they began ratcheting up a series of walkouts strategically at factories producing some of the automakers’ most profitable models.

This was the first time ever that the UAW had struck all three companies simultaneously, and the choice to do so dealt a significant blow to the Big Three’s profits. Altogether, 45,000 workers went on strike. Estimates show that after five weeks of strikes, the economic losses for the auto industry surpassed $9.3 billion. To stop the financial bleeding, the Big Three had no other choice but to meet workers’ demands at the bargaining table.

Another effective strategy wielded by workers this year is what we call an “inside-outside campaign,” which allows organizations to win major policy reform by working “inside” in alliance with sympathetic legislators, while also building “outside” pressure through grassroots organizing. California’s 550,000 fast-food workers used this strategy to win the recent passage of AB 1228, after years of organizing in force across the state to raise the alarm about low pay, unsafe working conditions, and a lack of voice on the job.