Something extraordinary is happening in factories, universities, hospitals, and movie studios across America. Workers are authorizing strikes and shutting down production in numbers that many young people have never seen before in their lifetimes.
The numbers are incredible:
More than 24,000 Kaiser Permanente hospital workers in California and Oregon have voted to authorize a strike. Some 61,000 film and TV workers were prepared to walk out this week until a temporary agreement was reached on Saturday. It would have been the largest Hollywood strike since before World War II.
The list of striking or on-the-verge of striking workers includes: whiskey makers, coal miners, steel workers, bus drivers, and grad students. By withholding their labor power, workers around the country are pressuring their employees to offer them a better deal for their work.
"There’s a new strike wave happening now," said Alexander Colvin, the dean of Cornell's School of Industrial and Labor Relations, noting that this strike activity didn't come out of nowhere and has slowly crept upward in recent years after the all-time lows of early 2000s. "The pandemic disrupted a lot of things and left workers dissatisfied and wanting to see change. That is combined with an increase in worker bargaining power. There are lots of job openings and high quit rates. Expectations are going up."
For most of the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s, labor activity in the United States dwindled. But this fall's strike wave—which has been called #Striketober on Twitter and has received vocal support from politicians and celebrities—could help bring the strike back into the popular consciousness.
Why are all these massive strikes happening now? A few factors are at play. A tight labor market has given workers across the country newfound leverage to demand raises from their employers, who are having a difficult time finding and retaining workers who are willing to accept middling wages while risking their lives.
"This is about wages," a striking John Deere worker in Davenport, Iowa, told Motherboard last week. "With what other people are paying, it doesn’t matter if this is McDonald's or Wendy's. We’ve been stagnant compared to everyone else."
"It’s been steadily getting worse since I’ve been here as far as how I’m treated," said a striking Kellogg's mechanic in Battlecreek, Michigan. “[Kellogg's] has made it very clear that anybody new who starts would never have a path to a pension or premium health care. The main issue really is our future. Our future is not for sale."
Experts say workers are seeing wages go up around the country (some fast food chains are paying more than $20 an hour)—and are using this knowledge to collectively pressure their employers into paying them more and to refuse deteriorating working conditions. Kellogg's has proposed ending its workers' cost-of-living raises; meanwhile John Deere wants to lower raises for its workers so that they no longer keep up with inflation.
This newfound leverage workers have to demand more is compounded by the pandemic conditions. Many of the complaints from striking workers are not only related to wages, but about hours, scheduling, safety, and overwork.
It also coincides with a period of enormous profitability for many corporations, such as Kellogg's and John Deere, that thrived during the lockdown. Workers see their companies flourishing and executive compensation rising, while they are being asked to agree to worse retirement plans and more expensive healthcare plans, in many cases, after working 12-16-hour shifts for months without a day off during the pandemic, and they decide to strike.
"I look at #Striketober and what I see is people fed up with long hours and low wages," said Lane Windham, a labor expert at Georgetown University. "Long hours is a theme. That’s an issue with Kaiser [healthcare workers], [film and tv workers], and Kellogg's [production workers]. They’re being asked to sacrifice time with their families with no choice."
For most workers in the United States, who don't belong to unions, striking is not an option, and other forms of collective and individual protest have emerged. For example, Instacart gig workers who deliver groceries are in the middle of a collective work stoppage on the platform to demand higher pay. Non-unionized workers, particularly in low-wage jobs in the hospitality and service sectors, who legally cannot strike are using their leverage to quit their jobs in record numbers and find better paying ones. McDonald's, Wendy's, Chipotle, and Dollar General workers have quit en masse. In August, almost 3 percent of workers in the United States quit their jobs—an all-time record.
"While union workers are exercising their right to strike, millions of others are exercising what they have available to them—quitting jobs, voting with their feet," said Windham. "It’s a slow moving 'general strike.'"
As labor organizers and experts have long noted, strikes tend to have a domino effect. When workers see each other walk out and win, they inspire others to do the same. While the strike numbers are nothing compared to what they were in the 1940s—when at one point one in ten workers in the US went on a strike in a single year—the number of workers on strike in the United States is the highest the country has seen since the 1980s.
But there's only so much workers can do without a union, and union membership in the United States remains at a near all-time low. Only 6.3 percent of private sector workers in the United States are in unions. Until that changes, we're unlikely to see a strike wave that could rival the heyday of the U.S. labor movement.