Strike wave may be the beginning of something big

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Lancaster, Pennsylvania, United States. October 11, 2021: 1400 Kellogg's workers are on strike across the country.
Luigi Morris / Shutterstock.com

“There’s a new strike wave happening now,” says Alexander Colvin, the dean of Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. The discontent has been slowly building in recent years. Colvin told Vice, “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.”

Payday Report‘s “Strike Tracker” recently documented its 1,600th work stoppage since the pandemic began in March of 2020. 

Across the country, many thousands of workers are in rebellion. They are angry about long hours, low pay, lousy and dangerous working conditions and a lack of respect. They work in factories, hospitals, universities, retail establishments and movie/television studios. This is the biggest revolt in decades. Most workers don’t belong to unions so they can’t go on strike. Non-unionized workers, particularly in the hospitality and service sectors, are quitting their jobs in large numbers. Bloomberg reports, “the scale of the increase in 2021 is far beyond anything on record.”

A Kaiser nurse in California told labor reporter Steven Greenhouse: “We’ve been going all out during the pandemic. We’ve been working extra shifts. Our lives have been turned upside down. The signs were up all over saying, ‘Heroes Work Here.’ And the pandemic isn’t even over for us, and then for them to offer us a one percent raise, it’s almost a slap in the face.”

The bosses didn’t see it coming. Robert Bruno, a labor relations professor at the University of Illinois, said, “You can definitely see that American capitalism has reigned supreme over workers, and as a result, the incentive for companies is to continue to do what’s been working for them. It’s likely that an arrogance sets in where companies think that’s going to last for ever, and maybe they don’t read the times properly.”

Public support for the labor movement in the U.S. has climbed to its highest level in more than 50 years. President Joe Biden said he was going to be “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen.”

There have been some promising appointments and executive orders. 

The U.S. labor law has become very pro-management over the years. Over the decades, Democratic presidents have supported efforts to change the situation but never have put up a serious fight. The U.S. House passed the Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act) and Biden spoke out for it. However, the Republicans in the Senate led by Mitch McConnell used the filibuster to block it. 

The PRO Act would prohibit employer interference and influence in union elections, Intimidating mandatory company-sponsored meetings are often used to lobby against a union organizing drive.

Such meetings would be illegal. For the first time, there would be monetary penalties for companies and executives that violate workers’ rights. Corporate directors and other officers of the company could also be held liable.

The PRO Act would invigorate the labor movement. It needs a shot in the arm. Only six percent of private-sector workers are in unions, the lowest level in a century.

For the first time in decades, workers’ militant resistance is helping shape the political agenda of the Democratic Party. The $3.5 trillion budget proposal would give working people more power in their everyday lives with policies that support home health care and child care, the child tax credit, Medicaid expansion, and investments in housing and green energy.

If people have more stable and economically secure lives, they have more time and energy to become active and informed citizens. A democracy needs active and informed citizens. Now more than ever when one of the two major parties, the GOP, has become a far right authoritarian party.

Writing in Labor Notes, Jonah Furman and Gabriel Winant note: ”In the last several years, a number of mainstream Democrats have come to accept what had previously been a left-wing argument: that the increase of social inequality and the decline in working-class economic security is the ultimate cause of the destabilization of American democracy and must be taken head on. The stated position of the Biden administration is that ‘the decline of union density has . . . weakened our democracy.”

This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.