As the rich and comfortable stayed indoors and rode out the worst months of the pandemic on their Peloton bikes, workers around the country shifted into a different gear. Ten thousand farming equipment workers in Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Colorado, and Georgia walked out of their jobs, joining 1,400 cereal workers at Kellogg’s plants in Nebraska, Michigan, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania, as well as 1,100 coal miners at Warrior Met Coal in Alabama and nurses in New York and Massachusetts. And thousands more are waiting in the wings—from workers in academia, to healthcare workers at Kaiser Permanente in Oregon, California, and Hawaii, to film and television workers in the entertainment industry who averted a strike after threatening to walk off the job and reached a tentative agreement, which will now be voted on.
That’s not all. New York City taxi drivers have idled their iconic mustard-yellow cars and camped outside City Hall for more than a month, holding a 24/7 protest vigil that escalated to a hunger strike last week. The hunger strike by members and supporters of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance is taking place before a fast-approaching quarterly budget modification deadline on Oct. 31. Before the deadline, if he so chooses, Mayor Bill de Blasio can add a loan guarantee to lower the monthly payments on the crushing debts that drivers have accrued (averaging half a million dollars per driver) as a result of predatory licensing schemes.
Whatever you want to call this marked uptick in worker militancy, one thing is clear: In general, and on an individual level, workers are more confident than they’ve been in a long time, and they are seizing the crisis in front of them to their advantage. Members of the vast “order-taking class” are deploying their newfound leverage to command better wages as employers struggle to fill vacancies in a tight labor market while the pandemic still rages across the nation. And it’s not just big, headline-grabbing strikes—the increasing boldness and assertiveness of workers is manifesting in other important ways.
“We are witnessing a unique opportunity for many workers who have been on the front lines of a global pandemic and recognize that employers are struggling to hire,” said Johnnie Kallas, project director of Cornell University’s Labor Action Tracker, an online database that documents labor actions and strikes no matter their size.
“For example, we have documented six separate strikes by bus drivers—union and nonunion—since late September involving anywhere between 20 and 200 workers,” Kallas added. “Nearly all these strikes include demands related to higher pay. Health and safety concerns have also been voiced by striking workers.”
Meanwhile, in what some are calling the “Great Resignation” and others have described as an “unofficial general strike,” some 30 million US workers have quit their jobs from January to August, a stunning collective rebuke—expressed on an individual level—to the common degradations of low-paying, demeaning jobs.
Stephanie Luce, professor of labor studies at the City University of New York, notes that strikes extend beyond formal strike authorizations called by unions. “We may be seeing a lot more work stoppages that are not formal strikes called by unions, or formal strikes in smaller workplaces, and informal work actions.”
“We should consider the range of workplace actions workers engage in to protest their conditions of work, from formal strikes to work slowdowns, sick-outs and quitting. Workers have always employed a range of tactics that should be considered part of striking.”
And why not throw in the towel? The average worker is more productive now than ever 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 1% has exploded over the course of the pandemic has only made it clearer that we are all playing a rigged game.) While workers struggle to keep their heads above water, they’ve seen CEO pay soar to stratospheric heights, ballooning by 19% in 2020, or $24.2 million on average, according to an August study by the Economic Policy Institute.
Some have channeled their discontent into the throes of collective bargaining and bustled about the perimeter of picket lines. However, while workers have, indeed, turned the heat on the bosses, the flame of worker militancy is not yet a blowtorch capable of setting off conflagrations of work stoppages across the country.
From January 2021 to today, there have been 198 strikes—53 of those strikes, involving approximately 28,200 workers, have occurred in October alone, according to the Labor Action Tracker. By contrast, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, which only tracks work stoppages involving at least 1,000 workers, puts the figure of strikes at 12 since January 2021, based on data up to September 2021.
Here’s the sobering truth: The discontent fueling the current uptick in strikes and protests is incredibly important, but that uptick still pales in comparison to the 485,000 workers who went on strike in 2018 and the 425,000 in 2019 during a strike wave involving teachers in states from West Virginia to Arizona, as well as workers in auto plants and hotels. Go even further back to 1971, when more than 5,000 work stoppages involving over 3,000,000 workers occurred, and the comparison to today’s strike numbers puts the reality of labor’s situation in even starker relief. Tens of thousands of workers fighting back in 2021 is significant, but there are roughly 14 million union workers in the US alone, according to the 2021 annual report of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Basically, it’s a big country—and we still have a long way to go.
“I think the term ‘strike wave’ gets thrown around too much, because it depends on what you are comparing,” said Kallas. “We also know that changes in our economy have made striking much more difficult since the 1980s, making it important to contextualize these historical comparisons.”
We need to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time; we need to identify and cultivate the passions among America’s rank and file that have made this a special moment, but we also need to be clear-eyed about the deep challenges preventing this moment from becoming a movement. For instance, while it’s become a routine journalistic genuflection to cite a September Gallup poll showing more than 68% of Americans approve of unions, the amount of new workplace organizing efforts doesn’t match up to these shifting trends in public opinion. At the very least, this should temper our feverish excitement about the potential of a new worker upsurge expanding to encompass millions of workers who can bring the bosses and our rigged economic system to their knees. We’re not there yet.
Momentum building is crucial to movement building, and successful strikes are indeed contagious, emboldening workers elsewhere to take action in their own workplaces. But “a failed strike that ends with the strikers permanently replaced by scabs can spread fear and hopelessness across communities and industries,” Shaun Richman, program director of the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. School of Labor Studies at SUNY Empire State College, wrote for In These Times. Translation: as much as new strikes and public excitement about worker struggles can help lift the labor movement off its back, failed strikes and fizzling public commitment to those same struggles can push the movement farther in the wrong direction. Even if worker militancy is growing, workers have a deliberately narrowed path to navigate to victory, shaped by decades (even centuries) of anti-worker laws and anti-union culture. This is why, in the same piece for In These Times, Richman makes the case for labor law reform, including the right to return to work after a strike (remember that fateful day in 1981 when Scab-in-Chief Ronald Regan fired over ten thousand air traffic controllers). It is also why many workers, labor leaders, and labor advocates have pushed for the passage of the Protect the Right to Organize Act—doing so, they argue, would open up pathways for workers to take today’s militancy and turn it into forms of worker organization that have real teeth and muscles.
If such changes to US labor law happened overnight, for example, it would have huge implications for miners in Alabama, who are going on eight months on strike and have seen scabs replace some workers (and hit picketers with their cars). Likewise, nurses in Massachusetts are approaching eight months on strike with their Texas-based employer Tenet Healthcare refusing to rehire striking workers while hauling in $448 million in profit in the third quarter.
“Leverage to win is obviously different in different industries and companies,” said Peter Olney, a former organizing director of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, pointing to the St. Vincent nurses and a national day of action he’s coordinating with the Democratic Socialists of America. “Tenet has over 450 facilities and just brought in $2.4 billion during COVID and they are gushing with cash. They are making a political statement to unions that dare to challenge them. The path to settlement would be labor solidarity, but only 30 facilities are union nationwide and SEIU has a national ‘organizing’ agreement with Tenet that forbids solidarity.”
While Olney welcomes the new militant attitude and workers’ desire for better jobs, he sounds a sober note about how that desire alone “cannot overcome pre-existing realities of union weakness and lethargy. Organizing the massive un-organized private sector remains key.”
Luce from City University of New York agreed. “As much talk as we hear about workers gaining power in a tight labor market, these long strikes show the tremendous power imbalance that still remains between the average employer and the average worker,” she said. “Employers have far more rights, resources, lawyers and political power than do workers, which means that despite their cries of helplessness, the average employer will be able to outlast the average union on a picket line.”
Since April, two dozen workers at the United Metro Energy Corporation fuel terminal in Brooklyn, New York, have been out on strike after more than two years of negotiations broke down between Teamsters Local 553 and billionaire John Catsimatidis. Six months into that strike, eight workers have received permanent replacement letters. The Teamsters had already filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board for the company’s alleged targeting of union activists, and filed new charges as the investigation unfolded.
The original two dozen workers on strike have dwindled to 14 today, as many took jobs elsewhere when faced with permanent replacement letters, according to striking worker Ivan Areizaga, 56, a terminal operator who has been working at United Metro Energy Corporation for nearly six years.
“I dedicated myself to the company. I’ve been working from 10PM to 7AM. They didn’t even have consideration that I have a family. I want to have a weekend with my kids,” he said. “The only time I took off was when my mother passed. Three days after, I came back to work, never missed a day, and did everything I was asked for.”
Beyond the long hours, Areizaga also discovered that he was earning $27 when the industry standard for the same job is $37 hourly. A father of three, he began thinking about retirement and a pension. So he joined up with his co-workers and formed a union, leaping at the prospect of financial stability.
“I’m 56 years old. How many years do I have to work in order for me to make a decent living and provide for my family?” he asked himself.
“As much as the Union has the right to strike, we have a right, under federal labor law, to permanently replace employees to enable us to service our customers,” Catsimatidis said in a statement to the local newspaper The City, making explicit that the dictatorship of employers is largely a legal offensive.
Shortly after going on strike, Areizaga said the company cut his health benefits. He recounted the experience of his son, who has diabetes, calling from college in North Carolina panicked because he couldn’t access his medication. “Dad, what’s going on,” his son asked him. “I can’t get my medication.”
“What we’re asking for he got in his back pocket,” Areizaga said of billionaire Catsimatidis. We were there through the pandemic when everybody was home; we were there providing for New York.”
Areizaga and his co-workers supply New York with heating oil, diesel, and gasoline, which keeps New York City schools, hospitals, and the subway warm; they are also responsible for fueling local gas stations. They and their labor are nothing if not essential for the city and its residents. And yet, existing labor law makes it much easier than it should be for bosses to dissociate the work from the worker, allowing them to replace the latter with anyone willing to do the former while safely ignoring the needs and concerns expressed by employees like Areizaga.
John Catsimatidis of United Metro Energy Corporation didn’t respond to a request for comment.
“We’re not giving up. We have lost a lot already,” Areizaga concluded.
If we want Striketober to be more than just a short, bright moment in time, we cannot forget about workers like Areizaga (or the miners at Warrior Met Coal, or the nurses at St. Vincent Hospital). We must do what we can—all of us—to help them win their struggles, and we must have a concerted strategy for addressing or removing the systemic barriers that make winning so hard.
Striketober may very well be just a viral hashtag, but the growing worker militancy it invokes is unmistakably in the air, fanning like pixie dust down to the lowest number of workers banding together to form unions and strike. What remains to be seen are efforts to rebuild class organizations on an even more massive scale for a lasting rebalance of power in the struggle of the many against the rapacious few.
Correction 11/01/2021: This article has been updated to reflect that the number of strikes recorded by the Labor Action Tracker since January 2021 to time of publishing was 198. The number of separate strike locations in that time period was 258.