In late March, workers at multiple call centers in Wisconsin had had enough. The company they worked for, CapTel, provides text captions for hearing impaired people during phone calls, and amid the pandemic there was more work than ever—but management was refusing to consider employee demands for additional pay, instead increasing their workload but not their paychecks. So several dozen workers called out as a way of putting pressure on their bosses, and subsequently won a paid break, an "appreciation bonus" of $300, and a $2 "emergency pay" wage increase.
That labor action, small as it was, didn't get much media attention. But it was written up in the labor platform Organizing Work and subsequently got put on the COVID-19 Strike Wave Interactive Map, a project from the reader-supported labor news website Payday Report. Launched last month, the map's goal is to document the storm of labor actions, including sickouts, wildcat strikes, and refusals by employees to potentially risk their lives for low pay.
"When these strikes started happening, I had this problem of writing these stories and saying, 'Oh there's all these strikes happening.' How many strikes? It'd be good to put a number on it," said Mike Elk, the longtime labor reporter who founded Payday Report. "So we have put a number on it. We've said there've been over 150 strikes. And we think that's a severe underestimation given how little reporting there is in so many places."
Many of the strikers belong to unions, but others are from non-union workplaces. The meatpacking industry is maybe the most prominent part of the economy where strikes have appeared, with workers justifiably worried about contracting the coronavirus in often cramped, sometimes unsanitary conditions. Donald Trump has announced he'll try to use the powers of the federal government to keep meatpacking facilities open, but workers have continued to strike and have succeeded in shutting down some plants. Another industry being hit by strikes is nursing homes, Elk said, with workers complaining of equipment shortgages and unsafe environments.
"What's happened is that workers traditionally are scared of going on strike because they're scared of losing their jobs," Elk said. "Now they're scared of losing their lives."
The tracker could open the door to more widespread organizing campaigns and other union activity, Elk thinks, as widespread layoffs and the continued need for new safety protocols makes more workers aware that they have the power to demand changes to their environments. "Once workers realize they have power, they don't forget it," Elk said.
Elk doesn't have a whole lot of faith that the corporate media will cover organizing efforts—in the past, he said, even left-wing outlets have tended to ignore the slow, incremental process of labor organizing in favor of "poverty porn" about workers being screwed over. Even now, with strikes breaking out across the country, there has been more attention paid to relatively small groups of extremists protesting state-level lockdown orders. Elk thinks that's because those demands to "reopen the economy" lets the media tell standard stories of partisan conflicts. "The idea of these reopen rallies, which are much smaller than the wildcat strikes, appeals to those narratives," Elk said.
But the strikes are ongoing, and probably more numerous than the strike map indicates, since so much of the country is now a "news desert," meaning not covered by local reporters who would do things like write about strikes even if it wasn't big national news being discussed by the president. It’s for good reason that Payday Report's tagline is "Covering labor in news deserts."
"That's what we're trying to do,” Elk said. “Uplift these stories nobody else is telling.”