AFT Guild Logo

In Brief: A Wave of Labor Activism and Strikes is Sweeping Across America

Oct 22, 2021

Striketober Sees Over 100,000 Workers Prepare to Strike

“After a year of mass quitting spurred by overwork and burnoutover 100,000 U.S. workers have authorized their unions to go on strike. The strikes range from the food industry to Hollywood to K-12 education and academia. There’s even a subreddit following the news about “Striketober” and shared resources for workers to use in considering their own strikes.

Why now? A confluence of problems — exacerbated by the pandemic, but fomented over the last several decades of declining labor rights and power — has created a crisis moment for worker organizing to push for change. “A tight labor market has given workers across the country newfound leverage to demand raises from their employers, who are having a difficult time finding and retaining workers who are willing to accept middling wages while risking their lives,” explained Motherboard senior labor columnist Lauren Kaori Gurley.

On October 12, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed that 2.9% of the American workforce quit their jobs in August 2021. But for those workers who don’t want to — or can’t — quit, strikes are an opportunity to demand what they need from their employers.

“Workers are asking for dignity and respect on the job. They’re asking for control over their time,” Rutgers University labor studies professor Rebecca Givan told PBS Newshour about Striketober. “They’re really seeing this stark demonstration that their employers don’t care that much about them.””

Lexi McMenamin, 10/19/21 Teen Vogue

American Workers Battle for Power Amid Labor Crunch

“In addition to the organized strikes, there have been waves of workers walking off the job in nonunion positions, such as fast food workers protesting allegedly unsafe working conditions and low wages despite being lauded as essential workers.

Allynn Umel, director of the Fight for $15 campaign, told Yahoo News that “the hypocrisy between being called ‘essential’ and the need for workers to sacrifice themselves and their families over the course of the pandemic has been fueling a lot of frustrations that workers have been facing.” Low-wage workers, Umel said, “know this is a moment where they want to make it clear that the pre-pandemic status quo of unlivable wages and terrible working conditions are no longer acceptable.”

All of these factors have combined to form what former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich called a “national general strike,” as workers potentially gain more power than they have had in decades amid labor shortages and widespread dissatisfaction with income inequality.

Workers, Vachon said, “are withholding their labor because they don’t like what’s being offered, and that’s essentially what a strike is.”

“It’s not organized by any organization, and they’re not all communicating about it across the whole economy. But what’s happening is there is a de facto general strike, and that just increases the economic power of the workers who go on real strikes.””

Christopher Wilson, Yahoo News, 10/18/21

Is American Experiencing an Unofficial General Strike?

“Americans are also quitting their jobs at the highest rate on record. The Department of Labor reported on Tuesday that some 4.3 million people quit their jobs in August. That comes to about 2.9% of the workforce – up from the previous record set in April, of about 4 million people quitting.

All told, about 4 million American workers have been leaving their jobs every month since the spring.

These numbers have nothing to do with the Republican bogeyman of extra unemployment benefits supposedly discouraging people from working. Reminder: the extra benefits ran out on Labor Day.

Renewed fears of the Delta variant of Covid may play some role. But it can’t be the largest factor. With most adults now vaccinated, rates of hospitalizations and deaths are way down.

My take: workers are reluctant to return to or remain in their old jobs mostly because they’re burned out.

Some have retired early. Others have found ways to make ends meet other than remain in jobs they abhor. Many just don’t want to return to backbreaking or mind-numbing low-wage shit jobs . . .

Corporate America wants to frame this as a “labor shortage.” Wrong. What’s really going on is more accurately described as a living-wage shortage, a hazard pay shortage, a childcare shortage, a paid sick leave shortage, and a healthcare shortage.”

Robert Reich, The Guardian, 10/13/21

U.S. Workers are in a Militant Mood

“Evidence is growing of an uptick in labor militancy across the United States. This week, ten thousand United Automobile Workers (UAW) members at John Deere began their first strike at the company since 1986, and there are several other private-sector strikes still ongoing, including two thousand nurses at a Catholic Health hospital in New York, fourteen hundred workers at Kellogg’s cereal plants across the country, eleven hundred coal miners at Warrior Met in Alabama, and four hundred twenty United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) members at Heaven Hill Distillery in Kentucky.

While these actions do not add up to a strike wave, they might if we were to add two more huge — by recent standards — impending potential strikes, one by sixty thousand International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) members in the film and television industry, another by twenty-four thousand workers at health care giant Kaiser Permanente.

Joining these private-sector strikes is a restiveness among the broader working class, one that can be discerned in data released by the Department of Labor (DOL) on Tuesday. The biggest takeaway from the DOL report is that people are quitting their jobs in record numbers, with some 4.3 million quits in August, about 2.9 percent of the country’s workforce . . .

The labor movement will need to seize this moment (which, it is worth saying, would look different had the PRO Act — the slim-chance labor-law reform bill nominally supported by Joe Biden — passed by now). Unions can devote resources to new organizing, and further democratize themselves so as to meet the upsurge in worker activity (indeed, efforts are afoot to do just that, especially among UAW and Teamsters members). The Left can use the present to take the politically transformative possibilities of workplace action and make them real, connecting the dots between one employer’s abuse and the broader ecology of a capitalist system that ensures such exploitation at the level of the working class as a whole.

The mood is unmistakable, the moment is ripe. As one worker on the UAW Local 74 strike line at John Deere described it, there is a sense that the strike is not isolated. As that worker said, “Labor is finally ready to fight.””

Alex N. Press Jacobin, 10/15/21


Builded Pathways Report
Climate Justice Report
Immigrant Justice Report
Adjunct Equity Report
I am my union