Workers push back against unfair conditions, poor pay

Martin Lopez Health care workers on strike

‘Striketober’ wave reflects growing unrest

“We’ve never had the deck stacked in our advantage the way it is now,” said Chris Laursen, a worker at a John Deere plant in Ottumwa, Iowa in an interview with the Waterloo Times. And workers, whether BIPOC, White, male or female, have begun to take advantage of that opening in a show of unity not seen in decades in opposition to poor wages, benefits and working conditions.

“We were essential,” said Leslie Glazar, recording secretary of the local union representing workers at Heaven Hill spirits bottling plant near Louisville, in a recent New York Times interview. “They kept preaching, ‘You get us through that, we’ll make it worth your time.’ But we went from heroes to zero.”

“The murder of George Floyd has emboldened Black workers as well as their White counterparts,” said Peter Rachleff, retired Macalester College history and labor professor and co-executive director of the East Side Freedom Library in St. Paul. “When White workers see Black people standing up and fighting back it can be a source of inspiration.

“Happy people are not racists,” Rachleff continued. “Racists are unhappy and have been taught to aim their unhappiness at Blacks and People of Color, rather than aiming their unhappiness at their bosses. 

“The job of progressives is to provide those who are unhappy with an alternative analysis of the cause of their unhappiness. When workers are in movement they are more conscious.”

And that may explain one of the largest strike waves in the U.S. in 50 years. Mike Elk of has counted over 1,650 walkouts of some kind since the beginning of the pandemic in 2020. The website has reported labor actions and protests in practically every industry in the U.S. including retail stores, fast-food chains, factories, restaurants, schools, hospitals, airports, and even the gig economy.

There have also been dozens of labor protests complaining about working conditions and other issues associated with the job. Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations ILR Labor Action Tracker, which tracks strikes and worker protests, has recorded 307 since the beginning of the year.

Dubbed by the internet and social media as #Striketober, in October tens of thousands of workers across the U.S. went on strike against a myriad of companies. Strikes, which are often a last resort used by workers and especially unions to meet their workplace demands, have become more commonplace. 

ABC 7 Chicago / YouTube Workers on strike

The recent labor unrest has grabbed the attention of mainstream media. The New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times, Time, and others have brought attention to this movement of dissatisfaction on the part of workers in the U.S. “Workers Press for Power in Rare Advance for U.S. Labor Movement,” was the headline of a Bloomberg Businessweek story recently, which highlighted organizing by unemployed Americans. 

According to the newspaper, more than nine million people in this country lost their jobs to the pandemic but got no help from the federal government. These people, though left behind, have begun to organize themselves to help one another fight for the benefits which some say they didn’t receive because they “kind of got forgot about.”

“The average worker is more productive now than ever,” wrote the Real News Network, “but has seen their real wages stagnate for decades as the cost of living rises and the lion’s share of profits have been siphoned off by those at the top. (The fact that the wealth of the one percent has exploded over the course of the pandemic has only made it clearer that we are all playing a rigged game.)” 

 According to an August study by the Economic Policy Institute, CEO pay has soared to stratospheric heights, ballooning by 19% in 2020, or $24.2 million on average.

Well-known companies like Nabisco, Kellogg, and even Hollywood studios have been struck. Workers have complained about being forced to work double shifts. Kellogg workers said they had been forced to work 16 hours a day seven days a week without a day off for weeks. 

The union representing Hollywood tech folks, the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE),  pushed for higher wages and better working conditions. They too complained of being worked long hours without breaks and being forced to work double shifts with little time to rest between workdays.

“I think there is a sense of self-confidence and folks feeling like they have nothing to lose,” said Kieran Knutson, Local president of CWA 7250 representing AT&T and Direct TV workers. “The rank and file is ahead of the leadership. The tentative agreements have been voted down. Workers are feeling confident to vote down unsatisfactory contracts even opposing leadership.

“Starting in the [19]80s the union leadership treated negotiations as harm reduction rather than a chance to expand the way profits are distributed,” Knutson continued. “The leaders are of the mindset, ‘Let’s try to slow the retreat as much as possible.’ 

“But the workers have changed. There is a certain willingness not to accept what has been handed to them. Folks feel like some of the profits should be headed their way.”

Knutson said in order for workers to make progress “we have to create a crisis for them like they create in working people’s families who are concerned about bills being paid and kids taken care of. We need to make sure that the working class is fighting for the entire class,” he said.  

The local labor head noted that workers like those at John Deere were turning down two- and three-tier proposals. “Deere workers fought that. Workers are starting to see the bigger picture and are more open to questioning things,” he said.

“It’s a workers’ market,” explained Mary Turner, head of the Minnesota Nurses Association. “Workers are going on strike because corporations have pushed us into it. People don’t have to put up with mistreatment anymore. 

“The lowered number of immigrants allowed into the country, the pandemic—which forced two million mothers out of the workforce to take care of their kids—all helped make this a workers’ market. And the work-life balance, which has gotten horrendous, pushed workers to strike,” said Turner.

She complained about the health care systems in Minnesota and their staffing. “They refuse to see it as medicine, but [rather] as a factory treating nurses and doctors like they are on an assembly line.”

“People feel emboldened by the labor shortage,” said Rachleff. “Essential workers feel more valued by their neighbors if not by their bosses. Workers are seeing strikes succeed, so they are emboldened by what they see.

“Workers are fighting two- and three-tier contracts out of solidarity with their neighbors, and it’s a form of self-defense. If they allow them [corporations] to hire people for less, the boss will eventually push them out the door. It makes it easier for them to be replaced,” he said.

It’s a moment with the flavor of 1945, explained Bloomberg Businessweek, which compared the current strike wave with the series of strikes throughout the country that occurred immediately after the war. Workers unleashed grievances they’d bottled up while getting the country through World War II wrote the magazine. Partly through a series of strikes that included one out of ten American workers they ushered in a period where employee’s median pay rose with their productivity.

Labor pundits insist that to recapture the spirit of 1945 and the leverage workers had at the time labor will have to build a movement that mobilizes large enough numbers to force reforms.