‘Striketober’ has been a long time coming and is only the beginning
Some have taken to calling this month “Striketober.” Given that no one wants to risk their livelihoods by going on strike, the fact that tens of thousands of workers are now doing just that is an inspiring show of courage after a generation of stagnant wages and too little reward for doing some of the toughest jobs in America.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, about 57,800 workers were on strike in the first nine months of this year. That already exceeds the entire annual number for five of the last 10 years. But it is what has developed in October and is on the horizon that illustrates the true level of discontent.
More than 50,000 Kaiser Permanente nurses and other healthcare workers are poised to strike after their heroic pandemic efforts were met by employer demands for a two-tier wage system that would slash pay and create workplace divisions that threaten patient safety. More than a thousand Kellogg’s workers, who put themselves at risk throughout the pandemic, are on strike. Television and film crews, numbering 40,000 workers, voted on a last-minute deal only after preparing for an industry-wide strike over such fundamental issues as meal breaks and a living wage. Earlier this year, Frito Lay workers struck over forced 84-hour work weeks and no days off for months at a time. And last week, more than 10,000 agriculture and construction equipment workers for John Deere struck, seeking a greater share of the company’s pandemic era profits that reached nearly $2 billion in just the second quarter of this year.
When 2021 ends, the number of workers on strike will exceed most years of the last decade. And that number does not include strikes involving less than a thousand workers, such as the Burger King employees in Nebraska who changed the fast-food giant’s sign to “We All Quit” and spontaneously walked off the job over safety, low pay and long hours, and kitchen temperatures that hovered near 100 degrees. As of Oct. 26, there were 257 such strikes this year, according to Cornell University’s strike database.
Resentment has been simmering for the last 30 years, as income inequality grew so dramatically that the top 10 percent is now paid more than nine times as much as all of the remaining 90 percent. Secure pensions, once a reasonable expectation after a lifetime of work, have virtually disappeared for most families. And for millions of workers, the growth of low-wage, no-benefit service jobs represents only an economic dead end.
As anger has simmered, employers have only added insult to injury by rewarding workers who risk their health during the pandemic with a gratuitous label of “essential worker,” while seeking to cut their pay and benefits. It has turned simmering anger into boiling action. As one John Deere striker summed it up: “We are making these shareholders billions of dollars while we are fighting for peanuts.”
In 1952, the U.S. hit the high-water mark for labor unrest as more than 2.7 million workers went on strike. They were mostly victorious and their courage ushered in a generation of growth for America’s middle class, which became the majority class. Since then, workers and unions have faced an avalanche of assaults and our nation’s middle class has shrunk to a minority class.
The dramatic increase in workers going on strike in our country has been a long time coming. While it is a sign of things gone awry, it also offers hope for the future.
Are we heading for 1952? Ask anyone who has walked a picket line and subsisted on strike pay, gambling that the strength of their labor will win a better future, and the answer should be, “We hope not.”
It shouldn’t take a strike to make sure wealth is more fairly shared with those who create it, to make workplaces safer, and to reward a life of work with dignified retirements. But today it does take that. We can expect more strikes — and we should all hope that the courage of the strikers prevails.
Edward M. Smith began his work-life laying asphalt in Illinois as a member of the Laborers’ International Union, working his way up in the union to become a vice president. Today he is president and CEO of Ullico Inc., an insurance and investment company.