All around America, workers have had enough. After a year and a half of a pandemic, after decades of stagnant wages and exploding executive salaries, after industry after industry has used innovation as an excuse for exploitation, more than 100,000 workers are on strike or prepared to go on strike.
The men and women on the picket lines this “Striketober” — and those who are ready and willing to join them — represent the kind of cross-section of America that most politicians only dream of reaching. We’re talking about a movement that stretches from the liberal bastion of Hollywood to the factory lines of the Midwest to the coal mines of Alabama. And if we’re being honest about the working conditions in this country, the number of people demanding change should be much, much higher.
As of Thursday, more than 10,000 John Deere workers at 14 locations in Iowa, Illinois and Kansas have walked off the job. Last week, the strikers voted 9-to-1 to reject a proposed contract from Deere, according to Labor Notes, a resounding dismissal that surprised United Auto Workers union leadership and company management.
Deere is doing very, very well for itself this year, a fact that has fueled the workers’ dismay at being lowballed in contract negotiations. By the end of this fiscal year, the company projects that it will have earned around $5.7 billion in profits alone, blowing its previous best year out of the water. In that context, you can see why workers would be frustrated with inadequate wage increases and plans to end pensions for new employees.
The Deere strike is currently the largest in the country. That title was set to be stripped from them Monday: 60,000 members of the International Association of Theatrical Stage Employees voted earlier this month to authorize what would have been an unprecedented strike. The willingness to walk off sets around the country came as conditions on those sets and behind the scenes on movie and television productions have only gotten worse over the last few years, union members told NBC News this month:
"If we don’t address this, I can't work in this industry till I'm 62, there's no way," said Gina Scarnati, 44, a specialty costume manufacturer who has worked in the industry for a decade. "We shouldn’t be begging for lunch breaks in 2021. I am 100 percent not financially prepared to go on strike, but we need to course correct. Right now, it's an industry I regret even getting into."
Making things worse has been discounts on labor provided to “new media” productions, like those from Netflix, Hulu, and Apple, despite a surge of new content from these companies. And the movies and shows on these platforms often mean a loss of future revenue that a traditional TV show might see as it moves from broadcast, to syndication, to digital purchase.
The IATSE and Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers announced on Saturday night that they’d reached a deal that would keep productions filming come Monday. Though details of the agreement have yet to be distributed to members, IATSE International President Matt Loeb, in a statement, called the outcome “a Hollywood ending” for members. But the agreement still has to be ratified by union members — and as the UAW learned, that’s not a guarantee until all the votes are cast.
Meanwhile, all eyes will be on Kaiser Permanente to see if nurses and other workers with the health care giant also go on strike next week. So far, 24,000 union members have voted to authorize a strike, demanding that Kaiser “scrap its plans for a two-tiered wage and benefits system, which would pay newer employees less than more tenured colleagues and offers them fewer health protections.” The Washington Post reported that another 50,000 Kaiser workers are asking for similar changes as their current contracts near their expiration date.
All of this is happening at a time when the wind is at the labor movement’s back. Gallup found last month that unions have a 65 percent approval rating with Americans, a level of support unseen since 2003. Taken together with ongoing strikes at Kellogg’s factories in Michigan, Nebraska, Pennsylvania and Tennessee, another 1,000 coal miners on strike in Alabama and 2,000 nurses in Buffalo, New York demanding adequate staffing, we have the conditions of what one expert called a “strike wave.”
"Strikes can be contagious for unions and workers," Kate Bronfenbrenner, the director of labor education research at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations told NBC News. "There are shared issues that are pushing workers to go on strike — and workers are looking at each other and getting inspired."
It’s also all happening at a time when labor is in the driver’s seat for a change. Low-wage jobs remain unfilled even as Covid-related unemployment benefits have expired. This labor shortage has employers doing whatever they can to lure workers back into gigs that workers are no longer sure they even want.
Yes, management at all of these industries is scrambling to find scabs to take the place of the picketing union members. Kellogg’s is already shipping in “contractors” to work the cereal processing lines; replacement workers provided by a staffing agency in Michigan are crossing the line in Buffalo and drawing the ire of the New York attorney general. And at Deere factories, salaried workers are being made to staff the tractor assembly lines, which seems like something you really don’t want unqualified workers doing.
Which, I have to say, really gets at the heart of why these employees are all choosing now to make their demands. These are all skilled workers who work very, very long hours — even if the money is good, the cash only comes in if you put in the hours. And in many cases, the money just isn’t that good, especially not for the soul-crushing conditions that folks are working through.
I how long some of these strikes will last. I don’t know if they’ll wind up disrupting you, the reader, and the life you lead. But if they do — if they mean that there are no Frosted Flakes on the shelf or that your favorite actor’s new movie is delayed — I encourage you to have empathy and act in solidarity. These aren’t unreasonable demands from these strikers. They just want to be paid fairly and treated with respect on the job.
That said, if you’re also feeling rundown and believe management at your company isn’t listening, do remember that you aren’t alone. And can I suggest joining a union, or even organizing one? As it turns out, when enough voices join together, it’s kind of hard to ignore them. So why not add yours to the chorus?