On September 12th, 2022, approximately 15,000 nurses went on strike across Minnesota and Wisconsin in one of the largest private sector work stoppages by nurses in U.S. history. Workers demanded increased staffing and higher wages to retain nurses after working for over two years through a deadly pandemic. In compliance with U.S. labor law, healthcare workers need to provide a ten-day notice of a work stoppage. Rather than remain on strike indefinitely until reaching a contract settlement, the nurses and their union, the Minnesota Nurses Association, planned a ‘fixed duration’ strike that lasted three days. These work stoppages involve workers predetermining strike duration – generally five days or less – ahead of time, returning to work unconditionally at the conclusion of the strike. According to data from the ILR Labor Action Tracker – a research project led by myself to comprehensively document strike activity across the United States – 15 out of 22 work stoppages by registered nurses in 2021 were of a fixed duration, suggesting that this type of strike has become an important tactic during contract campaigns.

After decades of debate on the best practices to revitalize the labor movement in the U.S., it appears that some unions are once against centering labor’s ultimate source of collective power – the strike – as a tool to combat recalcitrant employers. The types of strikes organized by workers are increasingly varied, suggesting that labor organizations have strategically adapted militant tactics to confront the legal and economic obstacles facing indefinite strikes. For example, educator unions have organized strikes that advance the demand of community stakeholders through bargaining for the common good campaigns. Since 2012, fast food workers have engaged in one-day ‘symbolic strikes’ to generate political power and improve working conditions outside of traditional collective bargaining. Fixed duration strikes organized by unionized nurses offer another strategic adaptation of labor militancy. In my recent article “Retooling militancy: Labour revitalization and fixed-duration strikes,” I analyze the rise of militant leadership at the California Nurses Association (CNA) and the emergence, strengths, and limitations of fixed duration strikes as a tool for nurse unions to confront concessionary bargaining and increased employer power.

After 90 years of affiliation with the American Nurses Association (ANA), staff nurses won control over CNA’s board of directors from nurse educators and managers in 1993, paving the way for new leadership to articulate a different vision for the organization. RoseAnn DeMoro became executive director of the union and helped lead the organization towards a more militant approach to collective bargaining and public policy. Examples of this new approach include CNA’s longstanding advocacy for a single payer health system, opposition to labor management partnership (especially the Kaiser partnership formed in 1997), and more frequent use of strikes. CNA leaders emphasize the short- and long-term importance of strikes. They help win immediate contract gains, but, more importantly, leaders and organizers in CNA view strikes as a form of ‘political education’ to build a more militant membership. This enhances the union’s strength during subsequent contract negotiations and helps advance the organization’s more progressive political vision.

While CNA leaders did not develop a firm policy on fixed duration versus indefinite strikes, they largely adopted the former after organizational change in the mid-1990s. The major advantages of fixed duration strikes are that they impose financial and reputational costs on employers, protect the economic interests of union members, and advance nurses’ role as patient care advocates. Because nurses are very difficult and costly to replace, even short strikes can disrupt employers. Walking out for a short period of time also protects nurses’ financial interests and lessens the likelihood that union members will be permanently replaced. Fixed duration strikes can also help overcome hospitals’ gendered narrative of nurses abandoning their patients while on strike. Nurses take their role as patient care advocates seriously, and shorter strikes allow them to advocate for patients while defending against hospitals’ public relations narrative. Finally, fixed duration strikes can also have a transformative impact on the membership at specific hospitals. For example, multiple interviewees in my study described a one-day strike in 2015 at Sutter Roseville in Roseville, CA as a “transformative event” that increased the militancy of nurses at the hospital, which helped lead to continued mobilization around workplace issues even after a contract settlement was reached.

While fixed duration strikes have important advantages, some of which overcome the challenges of organizing indefinite work stoppages, they also have several limitations. The major disadvantage is that they may not cause enough economic disruption to reach a settlement. Nurses may cause hospitals to incur outsized financial costs, but a fixed duration strike obviously causes less economic pressure than an indefinite work stoppage. This dynamic also means that a contract is rarely reached immediately following a fixed duration strike. Once a strike begins for a limited, predetermined amount of time and workers already announced that they will return to work unconditionally, employers have little reason to agree to a contract settlement at the conclusion of that strike. Some hospitals also elect to lock out workers for the remainder of the contract signed with a temporary replacement nurse agency. These contracts generally run for five days, so a one-day strike is often followed by a four-day lockout. Finally, unions and labor organizations need to proceed with caution if organizing numerous strikes over a short period of time, due to intermittent strikes remaining unprotected activity under the National Labor Relations Act. There are several steps unions and labor organizations can take to protect against charges of intermittent striking, though no clear standards of what constitutes an intermittent strike exist.

Fixed duration strikes represent one example of unions and labor organizations strategically adapting militant tactics in response to the limitations of traditional work stoppages, like employers permanently replacing striking workers. Other unions and types of workers have also utilized fixed duration strikes, such as in first contract campaigns by media workers and unfair labor practice walkouts by Starbucks baristas. While these strikes are an important component of union strategy and efforts to revitalize the labor movement, more research is needed to determine if they can help build membership growth or regain union power across a variety of industries and workplaces.

Johnnie Kallas is a PhD candidate at Cornell University’s ILR School. He also serves as project director of the ILR Labor Action Tracker. His research focuses on strikes and labor activism in the United States, with a particular focus on healthcare workers.

This article is adapted from Johnnie Kallas, “Retooling militancy: Labour revitalization and fixed-duration strikes.” British Journal of Industrial Relations, published online September 8, 2022, https://doi.org/10.1111/bjir.12709.

Image: Joe Piette, “Nurses strike for patient care against hedge fund,” March 5, 2017, via Flickr.