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Silicon Valley DSA: Losing Our Voices, Finding Our Footing

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Silicon Valley DSA:

Losing Our Voices, Finding Our Footing

Halloween can be awkward for adults. If you don’t spend the evening with kids or live somewhere that trick-or-treating is popular, it can be an anti-climactic evening with too much fun-size candy left over. For Silicon Valley DSA, Halloween looked different this year. It was Day 28 of a strike by workers at the Marriott in downtown San José, California. After several days of emoji-laden text banking, nine of us donned costumes and joined the small evening crew of strikers on the picket line to “scare” Marriott into agreeing to a fair contract with its workers. This wasn’t our first time on the line, and by now they knew our faces, if not our names. Together, we chanted:

“Dirty rooms and spooky lights, Marriott workers strike all night!”

Since Wednesday nights were slower for the hotel, the picket line also had fewer workers. This was especially true on Halloween, which many workers preferred to spend at home with their families. With this in mind, Silicon Valley DSA’s labor working group mobilized for the event as a low-key, new member-friendly show of solidarity, costumes encouraged. Soon Sonic the Hedgehog and a walking pile of dirty hotel bed sheets joined the march, while a wizard flyered guests to encourage them to check out. Several new faces who came just to see the picket instead stayed for hours. As workers choreographed their chants, we practiced spooky voices on megaphones. What could have been a “ghost” picket shift with five workers not only felt like a real party, but also exemplified our tactics for strike solidarity.

“What time is it? Check out time.”

In late 2017, roughly half a dozen members of Silicon Valley DSA (SV DSA) established the chapter’s labor working Silicon Valley DSA: Losing Our Voices, Finding Our Footing21group. Our charter recognized worker-led unions as critical for building workplace democracy, finding that such organizations best empower workers to control the products and circumstances of their labor. In addition, we believed DSA’s position enabled us to play an important tactical role in the labor movement through strike solidarity. Our organizational independence from unions provided valuable leeway for devising ways to make strikes more effective. We could also serve as community members in delegations to management, and escalate actions or media pressure when unions could not, due to strict labor laws.

“Who’s got the power? We’ve got the power. What kind of power? Union power.”

A year later in October 2018, nearly 8,000 Marriott workers struck in seven cities across the country, including San José, in the city’s first-ever downtown hotel strike. Our working group seized the opportunity to put our charter’s principles into action. Supporting unionized service industry workers in their fight for a fair contract was essential for us because it aligned with our goals while pushing us to build meaningful and durable coalitions. Although our group knew open-ended strikes (i.e., until demands are met) are rare today and picket lines are often mythologized, they rely on basic tools to succeed. These tools include: withholding labor, maintaining a physical presence on the line, and creating disruptive noise and spectacles that inconvenience management.

“¿Qué queremos? ¡Contrato! ¿Cuando? ¡Ahora! What do we want? Contract! When do we want it? Now!”

We also knew solidarity would have felt performative if we only attended big rallies. Instead, a small but consistent DSA presence on the picket line helped us learn first-hand what the Marriott workers specifically needed and how to best fill those needs. In small moments talking with workers, they taught us what “One job should be enough” (the strike’s nationwide slogan) meant to them. Workers focused on the struggles imposed by the rapid increase in the cost of housing in San José and the threat of automation. Through these interactions, we got to know the workers as not just employees striving for fair labor conditions, but also as our neighbors and friends.

“Marriott, Marriott look around: San José is a union town.”

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Based on these conversations and our background labor organizing knowledge, we strategized around three main goals: (1) supplying financial support for strikers, (2) supplying food for the picket line, and (3) creating spectacles to make the picket line more enjoyable for workers and more disruptive for the hotel. Because UNITE HERE! Local 19 was a relatively small local with less strike experience, its staff was excited to collaborate with us on inventive solidarity actions. Experimentation may not be possible for every DSA chapter supporting union efforts, but in our case acting with initiative and imagination, rather than waiting for instruction, worked well.

“Marriott Marriott rich and rude, we don’t like your attitude.”

Cooking up spectacles was the most creative aspect of our work. From dance performances to a novelty cake, silly ideas became power on the picket line. One member offered to bring her cornet, and at 7 a.m. the next morning she was up and ready to play reveille for guests crossing the line. Strikers gave her a wild reception, encouraging her to play while walking the line. Here and throughout the strike, the workers generously showed us the ropes when it came to annoying guests and being heard.

“All day, all night, this hotel is on strike.”

Sometimes we had to redefine the meaning of success for our efforts. In late October, the convention center adjacent to the Marriott hosted TwitchCon. Tens of thousands of gamers and gaming fans crowded the streets all weekend. Many attended convention events in the Marriott’s ballrooms or stayed at the Marriott while the strike continued. As drunken attendees approached the line or badgered workers, we developed a plan to insulate the picketers from uninformed visitors and divert the negative energy of the attendees in a positive direction. Over two days, we distributed flyers explaining why hotel workers were striking, directed attendees to the strike solidarity fund, and invited convention-goers to join a “picket line party” on Saturday evening.

“Respect our work, respect our time, do not cross our picket line.”

Despite us passing out nearly 1,000 flyers and having great conversations with convention attendees about the strike, only one person from TwitchCon attended our picket party, and almost nobody joined the picket line. Yet, at the same time, convention goers contributed to a noticeable uptick in strike solidarity fund donations. Being persistently visible also attracted media attention, as the popular gaming news blog Kotaku covered the strike, and one SV DSA member spoke to The Nation about labor issues in streaming services such as Twitch. The experience taught us sometimes success doesn’t come in the ways you always expect, and reminded us that there isn’t a clear-cut formula or measure for a successful action.

“Don’t check in, check out! Don’t check in, check out!

Walking the picket line can be loud and intense, but it also frequently offers opportunities for reflection. Fighting capitalism can start with a single workplace and clear, worker-generated demands. In this case, workers at 21 hotels in seven cities took on the largest hotel chain in the world and won. Their victory continues to inspire us and other workers, unionized or not, to realize their collective power. “Who’s in the fight? Local 19. Who’s gonna win? Local 19.”

Over 37 days, we found, lost, and found our voices again. Those who worked on strike solidarity are no longer “comrades” as a generic descriptor; we are bonded by the experience of collective action. Together, we fought sleep deprivation and did things that terrified us. Our comrades became the first people we texted in the morning and the last ones we texted at night. We are already looking for the next reason to pull out our communally-painted “DSA [heart emoji]s union workers” banner. Now that we know the breathtaking feeling of shifting from Sí se puede to Sí se pudo, we are more prepared than ever to build power for the working class.

“Sin contrato, no hay paz. Sin respeto, no hay paz. Sin dinero, no hay paz. Sin justicia, no hay paz.” [No contract, no peace. No respect, no peace. No money, no peace. No justice, no peace.

Silicon Valley DSA hopes you enjoyed the chants included throughout this piece. Like all great chants, they are meant to be shared far and wide, so bring them to a picket or protest near you! You can also read more about the specific solidarity actions we did in our SV DSA Strike Solidarity Kit. We hope this demonstrates that much of our work can be replicated by others with substantial rewards for both workers and our organization.

“Marriott, escucha, estamos en la lucha”[Marriott, listen up, we are in the fight]


To learn more about DSA’s work supporting striking Marriott workers, contact Silicon Valley DSA at: info@siliconvalleydsa.org

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Silicon Valley Democratic Socialists of America
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