Rising to the Occasion: Strike Support for Nabisco Workers

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When 210 workers walked out of Nabisco’s industrial bakery in Portland, Oregon, in August 2021, they started a strike that would continue for 40 days and spread to 1,000 workers at five locations. From Day One, Portland DSA was in the fight, with a solidarity campaign so successful that other chapters could consider it a template.

Portland DSA member Jamie Partridge, a retired letter carrier and life- long rank-and-file union activist, visited the picket line within hours of its start to talk with strikers and think about ways to help. He found a racially diverse group of workers who knew what they were fighting for and had strong bonds with one another.

“Half or more of these people had worked together for 20 years,” Partridge says. “It was clear to me that people were going to stick this out.” Partridge saw favorable conditions that would enable supporters to make an impact:

  • A SUITABLE TARGET – Here was a popular national brand, fresh off a year of record profits, demanding that union members sell out their future coworkers by agreeing to require new hires to pay more than current employees do for health insurance, setting up what’s known as a two-tier system. Corporate villainy like that puts public opinion on the side of strikers.
  • A UNION WILLING TO ACCEPT HELP – The Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers (BCTGM) International Union had lost half its membership since 2000, owing significantly to offshoring and the collapse of the old Hostess Brands after decades of looting by greedy investors. Now they were in the fight of their lives, the first strike at Nabisco in 50 years, and they hadn’t done much preparation.
  • A WORKFORCE READY TO FIGHT – For strike sol- idarity to work, strikers must first be willing to fight for themselves. In Portland, they were. Over the course of six weeks, just two workers crossed the picket line. Fifty members of three smaller unions at the Portland plant walked out in solidarity and mostly stayed out. Some union truck and train drivers refused to pick up or deliver. And Nabisco workers in Chicago, Denver, Richmond, and Atlanta, hearing that Portland workers had struck, joined the strike in the weeks that followed.

By the time the strike began, Portland DSA had built a large and spirited Labor Working Group, but the chapter had just had a demoralizing faction fight so acrimonious that the national convention censured and removed some steering committee members as delegates. Now came an urgent campaign that could unite all sides. Members from formerly warring perspectives put aside their differences and came together in a frenzy of organizing.

“These strikers are people who are actively fighting the capitalist class,” said Portland DSA co-chair Laura Wadlin.

“They’re removing their labor. And that is just qualitatively different than anything else we typically do in DSA.”

Portland DSA pulled off its first picket line support rally four days into the strike. It continued organizing rallies every Saturday until the end. These were large, morale-boosting rallies, with demonstrators sometimes in the hundreds, attended by DSA members, local union members, and local Democratic elected leaders. At each rally, Portland DSA invited individual strikers to tell their stories publicly. After some rallies, demonstrators marched into local grocery stores to call on shoppers to support the strike by boycotting Nabisco.

Portland DSA also helped set up and promote a Go- FundMe campaign to help strikers. Over the next month, supporters contributed over $90,000, enabling the union to double weekly strike benefits.

The third element of Portland DSA strike support began one week in, after Nabisco began trying to operate the bakery with outside scabs.

If a strike is a battle, the picket is its front line. Its purpose is to prevent people from crossing it. The word de- rives from military usage, from the French for a pointed stake held by soldiers at a perimeter. Today’s largely symbolic strike pickets are prevented from accomplishing their true purpose by legal restrictions limiting the number and location of strikers’ pickets and strikers’ conduct. Unions face ruinous fines if strikers violate those restrictions.

But non-striking members of the public aren’t limited by those restrictions. Without any coordination or encouragement from the union, but with the sympathy and appreciation of the striking rank-and-file, direct-action-oriented members of Portland DSA formed a flying squad of strike supporters willing to use their bodies and vehicles to block scabs and company vans and buses from entering and leaving. When scabs gathered at rendezvous points at 5 a.m. or arrived at the bakery, Portland DSA members were there to block their buses—pretending a car had broken down at a parking lot entrance or just standing in the way. In no case did they fully halt the scabs, but they succeeded in delaying scabs’ arrivals and departures. The confrontations, captured on video, were tense and sometimes physical, with security guards and scabs shoving and punching strike supporters. This seemed to escalate toward the final days of the strike, threatening further bad press for Nabisco.

Portland DSA also reached out to DSA chapters at the other striking locations and encouraged strike support. Members of other chapters helped in various ways, suggesting future capacity for DSA to do nationwide strike support for nationwide strikes. The DSA national office boosted strike funds on social media.

In the end, Nabisco dropped its demand for the two- tier wage scale, and the strike ended. The union also made some slight concessions on weekend overtime rules. But don’t think of that as a defeat; strikers don’t. Think of it as a union that risked it all and won back the knowledge of how to fight.

For its exemplary solidarity, Portland DSA earned the gratitude of one union and a reputation in the local union movement as a valuable ally prepared to do whatever it takes. Several strikers joined the chapter. And later, when a much larger strike loomed at Kaiser Permanente, that union invited Portland DSA to speak at its rally and help with strike preparation.