After 19 months of working to maintain their health and safety, many low-wage workers have had enough. They're demanding higher wages, meal breaks, vacation breaks, better benefits and shorter shifts. From Hollywood to health care, nearly 100,000 U.S. workers are either striking or preparing to strike to improve working conditions.
More than 10,000 John Deere employees went on strike Thursday, and more than 24,000 health care workers at Kaiser Permanente and about 60,000 Hollywood workers, members of the International Alliance for Theatrical Stage Employees, are preparing to strike. They join thousands of other workers who have recently faced a similar decision, including Nabisco plant workers who are on strike and Kellogg plant employees who had ended a weekslong strike.
He reported that the biggest fall in September and October was for a strong spike in late September and October, said Johnnie Kallas, Ph.D. D. student at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations, or ILR, who tracks labor actions across the U.S. It is a combination of two factors: workers have more labor market leverage with employers struggling and needing to hire, and then a lot of these workers have been on the front line of a global pandemic for the past 19 months and were touted as heroes, which has given them lots of leverage. As the word striketober appears online and on social media, it's clear that momentum is building around the actions. Kallas said that 174 strikes were confirmed as of Tuesday. The ILR classifies a strike as any employee action that leads to time warp. The John Deere hit brings the total to 175.
The simultaneous worker activism is known as strike wave, said Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education for the ILR.
Strikes can be infectious to unions and workers, she said. There are shared issues that push workers to go on strike — and workers are looking at each other and being inspired. The U.S. has been many strike waves in history as working conditions reached a specific threshold and workers refused to accept them any longer.
These lessons have to be learned over and over again, Bronfenbrenner said.
The pandemic has given workers time to think about their priorities and the time away from work gave them renewed perspective. In others, the pandemic was a stark reminder that workers were risking their lives for little reward.
Bronfenbrenner was a wake-up call because it wasn't just you could get injured on the job, but going to work could kill you, Covid said. Workers are feeling like they're working harder than ever and they put themselves out there during Covid and risked their life for what? Catherine Fisk, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, who specializes in employment and labor law, agreed.
Some of them were essential on the low-wage side. But they faced high death rates, but couldn't afford housing or health care, Fisk said. Now there is activism of desperation borne of hatred. Fisk said social media has helped their efforts by democratizing communication and helping workers not only to get their messages out but also to leverage the reach of the companies for which they work and appeal to consumers for support. She said that the media are paying more attention to the inequalities of wealth and connecting them to poor labor standards and wages.
That attention enables and in some cases empowers workers to use it to try to gain leverage in the political sphere, Fisk said.
More strikes are likely heading into the fall of the next year, which will coincide with the midterm elections, said Tim Schlittner, the communications director of AFL-CIO.
This wave is a long way to come. I think it will carry into midterm elections, because workers are fed up with the political system that doesn't deliver results, Schlittner said. Working people will be looking for candidates that align with their values, including the right to organize. He said that's where the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or PRO Act, might come into play. The bill has passed the House but has stalled in the Senate. Experts said it is putting unique pressure on companies.
Bronfenbrenner said PRO Act, coupled with continued public scrutiny, could discourage companies from taking extreme action against strikes. She said companies' bad behavior could give the act ammunition it needs to pass, which most employers don't want.
Bronfenbrenner said that unions and workers faced a major setback during the Trump administration but that things have already changed under President Joe Biden. She said the National Labor Relations Board is more aggressive about cracking down on employers who try to intimidate workers to prevent them from striking. That type of support can work to further embolden workers, she said.
No worker wants to go on strike, Schlittner said. These are strikes of necessity, of refusing to settle. It's a huge sacrifice to walk off the job with the pay and security that comes with.