More than 100K workers threaten strikes as unions flex muscles

Workers in various industries nationwide are threatening to go on strike in a sweeping effort to secure higher pay and better working conditions.

More than 100,000 unionized employees — between Hollywood production crew members, John Deere factory workers and Kaiser Permanente nurses — have overwhelmingly voted to authorize strikes and are preparing to join the picket line unless they get stronger collective bargaining agreements.

Thousands are already on strike, including 2,000 New York hospital workers, 700 Massachusetts nurses and 1,400 Kellogg plant workers in Michigan, Nebraska, Pennsylvania and Tennessee.

The wave of strikes comes at a key moment for labor groups, which have steadily lost ground in recent decades amid anti-union legislation and corporate crackdowns on organizing. But with companies now struggling to find employees, unions are finding leverage in their effort to boost front-line wages that have historically been limited due to a steady supply of applicants willing to take lower-paying jobs.

In a near-unanimous vote Monday, unions representing more than 24,000 Kaiser Permanente nurses and other health care workers in California and Oregon authorized a potential strike after contract negotiations stalled. Roughly 38,000 Kaiser workers have now authorized their union leaders to call a strike, if necessary.

Kaiser nurses, who are protesting pandemic-induced burnout exacerbated by low staffing levels, are pushing for 4 percent annual raises and ramped-up hiring. They oppose the company’s offer to increase annual pay by 1 percent over the next three years and implement a two-tier system that would pay newly hired workers less than longer-tenured employees.

Jodi Barschow, president of the Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, said in a statement that Kaiser’s proposals “show a profound disrespect for the frontline healthcare workers who are risking their lives during COVID.”

Though they’re far apart on contract talks, both sides say they want to avoid a strike that would severely disrupt medical care amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“We ask that our employees reject a call to walk away from the patients who need them,” Arlene Peasnall, Kaiser’s senior vice president of human resources, said in a statement. “Our priority is to continue to provide our members with high-quality, safe care.”

In the Midwest, more than 10,000 John Deere employees could walk out on Thursday after overwhelmingly voting to reject a new contract negotiated between the farm equipment manufacturer and United Auto Workers (UAW) over the weekend. 

Ninety percent of the union’s members rejected the proposal that would provide immediate 5 to 6 percent raises for most workers, according to UAW Vice President Chuck Browning. Workers said the pay raises were inadequate given that John Deere is expected to make nearly $6 billion in profits this year. Union members also disapproved of how the pay hikes would be offset by pension cuts for new hires.

The workers are set to strike for the first time in 30 years if they cannot come to an agreement by 11:59 p.m. Wednesday.

About 60,000 TV and film production crew workers will go on strike Monday if their union cannot secure a new contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents Hollywood and streaming giants such as The Walt Disney Co., Warner Bros. and Netflix.

The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees is demanding more time for meal breaks and sleep, along with better wages and an end to lower pay for workers who help produce streaming shows. Both sides want to avoid a strike, which would shut down the production of popular TV shows and movies.

“[The] pace of bargaining doesn’t reflect any sense of urgency,” Matthew Loeb, the union’s president, said in a statement Wednesday. “Without an end date, we could keep talking forever. Our members deserve to have their basic needs addressed now.”

Those strikes, if carried out, would be some of the largest walkouts in recent history.

Strikes have become less common amid declining union membership. In 2020, the Bureau of Labor Statistics identified just 11 major work stoppages that year, defined as strikes and lockouts involving 1,000 workers or more. Between 1950 and 1980, the U.S. saw an average of around 300 work stoppages per year. 

Workers feel they have more leverage than they did in previous years, knowing that their employers will struggle to find replacements if they walk out given the nationwide labor shortage.

The U.S. had 10.4 million unfilled job openings as of August, according to a Labor Department analysis released Tuesday. That’s slightly down from a record high of 11 million in July.

In a recent interview with The Hill, AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler said workers are “fed up” with harsh working conditions and stagnant pay amid a pandemic that has worsened income inequality, leading them to demand better contracts.

“This is the capitalist system that has driven us to the brink,” she added. “Inequality is just getting worse and worse. … We think unions are the solution.”

Labor leaders are hopeful that the recent surge in organizing can help end the decades-long slide in union membership. As of last year, just 11.3 percent of wage and salary workers were unionized, down from around 20 percent in 1983, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Labor groups point to a Gallup poll from September showing that Americans’ approval of unions is at a 60-year high. More than two-thirds of those surveyed — and 77 percent of Americans ages 18 to 34 — voiced support for organized labor.

Updated 12:43 p.m.


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