Short Strikes

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The one-day strike, once a surprising, even exceptional, tactic has become a social phenomenon. Workers now walkout in protest—and quickly return—all the time. So do high school students. The New York Times has published a “how-to” guide. Yet, while headlines tout how more workers struck in 2018 than at any point in the last three decades, because “short strikes” are also generally small, the actions are not viewed as significant enough to be included in the total. Activists clearly disagree. This essay argues that time-limited walkouts have reached an inflection point and considers why. Some answers are obvious. Limiting a strike’s duration maximizes labor law protections while nevertheless building attention and organizing capacities in ways that other forms of collective action may not. Those factors, though, were also true thirty years ago, so there must be more to the story. In fact, recent actions at McDonald’s, Google, and Uber suggest that while labor law may account for short strikes’ existence, employment law may better explain their surge. Public messaging, too, is a key motivator, but how strikers use bursts of specifically on-line attention to craft narratives and damage reputations says more about the tactic’s effectiveness. And while solidarity cultures are both a cause and a consequence of walkouts, Millennial culture may shape the future of short strikes just as much.