“Striketober” shows the rise of workers – but will it lead to lasting change?

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America’s unions have been on the defensive for decades, but in October there was a surprising explosion of activism and strikes as workers went on the offensive to demand more. Experts predict more actions to come, but whether “Striketober” can lead to permanent change remains an open question.

The scale of the industrial action is truly remarkable. Ten thousand John Deere workers went on strike, 1,400 Kellogg workers withdrew, and a walkout threatened by more than 30,000 Kaiser Permanente workers, all ignited by a deep disconnect between workers and management.

Many frontline workers – after working so hard and risking their lives during the pandemic – say they deserve substantial increases as well as a lot of gratitude. With that in mind, and with a myriad of employers complaining of a labor shortage, many workers believe the time has come to demand more and go on strike. It doesn’t hurt that there is a strongly pro-union president in the White House and that there is more public support for unions than in decades.

But some companies act like nothing has changed, and they can continue the decades-long practice of American companies of squeezing workers and demanding concessions, even after company profits have skyrocketed.

This attitude does not suit Chris Laursen, who earns $ 20.82 an hour after 19 years at Deere’s farm equipment plant in Ottumwa, Iowa. Laursen is upset that Deere is only offering a dollar an hour increase and wants to eliminate pensions for future hires, even when Deere is forecasting a record profit of $ 5.7 billion this year, more than double the income of last year.

“We were seen as essential workers from the start,” Laursen said, noting that many workers have racked up a lot of overtime during the pandemic. “But then they came up with an offer that was woefully low. It was a slap in the face of the workers who created all the wealth for them.

Many Deere workers complain that the company only offered a 12% increase over six years, which they say will not keep pace with inflation, even if the CEO’s salary has increased by 160% last year to $ 16 million and dividends were increased by 17%. Deere workers rejected the company’s offer 90% before going on strike at 14 factories on October 14, their first walkout in 35 years.

“We really showed up during the pandemic and continued to build equipment for them,” Laursen said. “Now we want something in return. The stars are finally aligned for us, and we had to bring the fight. “

Thomas Kochan, professor of industrial relations at MIT, agreed it was a good time for workers – many companies have significantly increased wages in response to the labor shortage. “It is clear that the workers are much more autonomous,” he said. “They are empowered because of the labor shortage.

Kochan added, “These strikes could easily trigger more strike activity if several are successful or are perceived to be successful. “

Robert Bruno, professor of labor relations at the University of Illinois, said workers have racked up a lot of grievances and anger during the pandemic, after years of slight improvements in wages and benefits. Bruno pointed out a big reason for the growing frustration of workers: “You can certainly see that American capitalism has reigned supreme over workers, and therefore the incentive for companies is to keep doing what works for them. . It is likely that arrogance is setting in where companies think it will go on forever, and maybe they are not reading the time correctly.

Keisha Richardson, a 15-year Kellogg employee, greets honking cars as they drive past the picket line outside the cereal manufacturer’s headquarters in Battle Creek, Mich., This week. Photographie : Emily Elconin/Reuters

Kevin Bradshaw, a striker at the Kellogg’s factory in Memphis, said the cereal maker was arrogant and ungrateful. During the pandemic, he said, Kellogg employees often worked 30 days in a row, often in 12- or 16-hour shifts.

In light of that hard work, he scoffed at Kellogg’s contract offer, which includes a much lower scale for new hires. “Kellogg is offering a $ 13 reduction in the maximum wage for new workers,” Bradshaw said. “They want a permanent two-tier system. New employees will no longer receive the same amount of money and the same benefits as us. This, he said, is bad for the next generation of workers.

Bradshaw, vice president of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers union local, noted that he made painful concessions to Kellogg in 2015. “We made so many concessions, and now they say that ‘ they need more, ”he said. . “It’s a real blow to the face during the pandemic. Everyone knows they are greedy and not in need.

Kellogg said his compensation is among the best in the industry and that his offering will help the company meet competitive challenges. Deere said he was determined to reach a deal and continue to make his workers “the highest paid workers in the agriculture industry.”

There are many strikes beyond Deere and Kellogg. More than 400 workers at the Heaven Hill Bourbon Distillery in Kentucky have been on strike for six weeks, while about 1,000 Warrior Met coal miners in Alabama have been on strike since April. Hundreds of nurses at Mercy Hospital in Buffalo went on strike on October 1, and 450 steelworkers from Special Metals in Huntington, West Virginia, also left the scene that day. More than 30,000 nurses and other health professionals at Kaiser Permanente on the West Coast have voted to authorize a strike.

Sixty thousand Hollywood production workers threatened to go on strike last Monday, unhappy that film and television companies did not take concerns about overwork and burnout seriously. But seeing that the union was seriously considering organizing its very first strike, Hollywood producers flinched, made compromises and the two sides came to an agreement.

Noting that Kaiser Permanente, a non-profit organization, had amassed $ 45 billion in reserves, Belinda Redding, a Kaiser nurse in Woodland Hills, Calif., Said, “We did everything we could during the pandemic. We worked extra shifts. Our lives have been turned upside down. The signs were everywhere saying, “Heroes work here”. And the pandemic isn’t even over for us, and then for them to offer us a 1% raise, it’s almost a slap in the face. “

Redding is also furious that management has offered to hire new nurses at 26% less than current salaries – which she says would ensure a nursing shortage. “It’s hard to imagine a nurse giving her everything when she is paid a lot less than other nurses,” Redding said.

Kaiser said his employees earn 26% more than the market average wage and his services would become unaffordable unless he cuts labor costs.

Healthcare workers are on strike to protest hospital working conditions amid the pandemic, at Mercy Hospital in Buffalo, New York, this month.
Healthcare workers are on strike to protest hospital working conditions amid the pandemic, at Mercy Hospital in Buffalo, New York, this month. Photograph: Lindsay Dedario / Reuters

Many non-union workers – often dismayed by low wages, unstable hours and mistreatment – have quit their jobs or refused to take back their elders after being made redundant during the pandemic. In August, 4.2 million workers left their jobs, in what has been called the Great Resignation. Some economists have suggested it was a quiet general strike with workers demanding better wages and conditions. “People use the output of their jobs as a source of energy,” Kochan said.

When it comes to unionized workers, some labor experts see parallels between the outbreak of strikes today and the much larger wave of strikes after WWI and WWII. As with the pandemic, these catastrophic wars have caused many Americans to re-evaluate their lives and jobs and ask themselves: After what we’ve been through, don’t we deserve better wages and conditions?

Professor Bruno said that in light of today’s increased worker activism, unionized employers should rethink their approach to bargaining “and take the grassroots pretty seriously”. They can no longer expect workers to turn around or push them to swallow concessions, often by threatening to move operations overseas.

Bruno wondered if the resurgence of strikes would be sustainable. He predicts that improvements in wages and job quality will be long-lasting, adding that it was more likely for unions to dramatically increase membership. He said that if workers see others earning better wages and conditions through strikes, it will increase the visibility of unions and lead to more workers voting to join unions.

Despite the recent turmoil, Ruth Milkman, a sociologist of work at the City University of New York, predicts a return to the status quo. “I think things are going to get back to where they were once things calm down,” she said. “The labor shortage is not necessarily going to last. She sees the number of strikes decrease once the labor shortage is over.

In his opinion, union membership is unlikely to increase significantly because “they don’t do a lot of recruiting.

“There’s a little bit” – like the organizing efforts at Starbucks in Buffalo and Amazon – “but it’s not like there’s a big push. “

A big question, said Milkman, was how to keep the momentum of today’s work going? She said it would help if Congress passed the Right to Organize Protection Act, which would make it easier for workers to organize. This law would encourage unions to organize more and increase their chances of winning union campaigns.

“It would be a real blow to the arm,” Milkman said.

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