Around 800 teachers and paraprofessionals in President Joe Biden’s hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania, started off the month of November by going on strike. Workers hit the picket line on Wednesday, Nov. 3, over budget cuts and low pay, as well as cuts to Pre-K, libraries, music and art programs, and the closure of an elementary school (with other closures anticipated).
“We’ve finally had enough as they continue to cut opportunities for our students,” said Adam McCormick, a 9th- and 10th-grade English teacher in Scranton. “As they continue to cut programs and try to cut teachers and put more and more on teachers’ plates, we came to a tipping point that we just couldn’t stand by and watch those things be taken from our students.”
McCormick noted that teachers’ wages in Scranton lag behind pay rates in surrounding districts, and around 15%of teachers have left the school district in the past 18 months, not including retirements.
In response to the strike, the school district cancelled workers’ health insurance, but teachers and their union rallied support from the community and elected officials, eventually winning a tentative agreement on Nov. 19.
Though this struggle in Scranton grew out of the localized conditions shaping the day-to-day lives of teachers and paraprofessionals in that community, their rank-and-file rebellion against the relentless push for workers to do more with less (and for less) echoes a common sentiment being expressed by workers in different sectors across the country. From “the great resignation” and “the great reassessment of work” to “Striketober” and “Strikesgiving,” workers around the US are fighting back against employers pushing for more concessions and cuts.
In recent weeks, in the midst of a tight labor market that has given workers rare leverage as employers struggle to find and retain enough staff, large groups of unionized workers in the private sector have gone on strike or threatened to strike in response to their employers proposing cuts or inadequate improvements to wages, benefits, safety, and working conditions.
60,000 film and TV workers and over 35,000 healthcare workers at Kaiser Permanente narrowly avoided strikes after reaching tentative new union contract agreements shortly before their scheduled strike dates.
More than 10,000 John Deere workers in the Midwest were on strike for over a month before winning a new contract. 1,400 Kellogg’s workers at four US plants have been on strike since Oct. 5. 2,000 healthcare workers went on strike at Catholic Health Mercy Hospital in Buffalo, New York, before winning a new contract after about five weeks on strike. Over 900 hospital workers in Huntington, West Virginia, have been on strike since Nov. 3, and 700 nurses in Worcester, Massachusetts, have been on strike for more than eight months.
Around 3,000 student workers at Columbia University started striking on Nov. 3. About 2,000 Harvard graduate workers went on a three-day strike at the end of October. 6,500 lecturers in the University of California system called off a strike that would have affected all nine undergraduate-serving campuses after reaching a historic contract agreement at the eleventh hour on Nov. 17.
14,000 grocery workers at Kroger in Houston, Texas, authorized a strike on Nov. 16. 2,200 healthcare workers at Sparrow Hospital in Michigan voted to authorize a strike, and thousands of other workers around the US have been or are still currently on strike as ‘Striketober’ has given way to ‘Strikesgiving.’
Though healthcare workers at Kaiser Permanente averted a strike, over 750 stationary engineers at 24 hospitals owned by Kaiser Permanente in Northern California have been on strike since September. In a show of solidarity, 40,000 Kaiser Permanente workers with SEIU-UHW, OPEIU Local 29, and IFPTE Local 20 held a one-day sympathy strike on Nov. 18. Around 22,000 nurses represented by California Nurses Association, as well as nearly 2,000 mental health clinicians with the National Union of Healthcare workers, also joined in a one-day sympathy strike on Nov. 19.
Debru Carthan, a radiology tech at Kaiser Permanente in Modesto, California, is one of the thousands of workers who participated in a one-day sympathy strike with the engineers.
“Enough is enough, it’s been two months,” said Carthan.
She explained that building engineers fix and maintain equipment throughout the hospital. Because Kaiser Permanente won’t bargain with these workers, and without their work to keep facilities running, patient wait times have increased.
“We really need our patients to understand we are fighting for them,” added Carthan. “We were short staffed prior to the pandemic and we’re short staffed now. Until the employers start posting positions, their wait times and frustration will continue and we don’t want that for our patients.”
Workers are quitting jobs at record rates
COVID-19 has also spurred a wave of workers quitting their jobs as employers in various industries are struggling to hire and retain workers and complaining about labor shortages, with some offering bonuses and higher wages to try to entice new workers.
In Oct. 2021, a worker in Vancouver, Washington, who requested to remain anonymous for concerns of future job prospects, explained they quit their job as a bank teller due to poor working conditions, high turnover, added work responsibilities without additional pay, and pressure to constantly put up with abuse from increasingly belligerent customers.
“The abuse I received from customers each and every day, and having to present a ‘customer is always right’ mentality, is what drove me out,” they said. “I’ve worked in the public my whole life, but I’ve never seen it this bad. I got paid a decent amount, but no amount of money is worth it if it affects your mental and physical health.”
Since 1979, the gap between workers’ productivity and typical compensation has dramatically increased, with productivity growing 3.5 times more than pay from 1979 to 2020, according to an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute. Lagging minimum wage increases, weak labor laws, employers’ hostility toward labor unions, tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and corporations, and deregulation have all been cited as factors contributing to this gap.
What’s more, Americans owe more than $1.8 trillion in student debt, and federal payments are scheduled to resume in January 2022. Around half of all Americans also carry debt from medical care expenses. The number of open credit cards in the US hit an all-time high in the third quarter of 2021 at 520 million. While struggling to afford food and dealing with the loss of health insurance coverage, millions of Americans fell behind on their rent, mortgage, and utility payments during the pandemic, as well.
Low-wage, women, Black, and Latino workers were among the hardest hit by COVID-19; they faced disproportionate layoffs and furloughs, while thousands of essential workers lost their lives to the virus.
Organizing in the time of COVID-19
The reassessment of work incited by the COVID-19 pandemic has fueled interest in and support for the labor movement in the US. Support for labor unions is at its highest point since 1965, including 77% of young Americans (ages 18-34), though union density has declined significantly over the past few decades, along with the frequency of work stoppages and union elections.
“Now is the moment for the labor movement,” said Liz Shuler, President of the AFL-CIO, a coalition of 57 national and international labor unions. “Working people, no matter if the law is broken or not working, people want to come together collectively—it’s innate. The labor movement is a perfect place to do that.”
Labor leaders around the US have pointed to several ways that this swell of public support for unions and workers can lock in lasting positive changes to America’s labor landscape, including supporting the labor law reforms in the PRO Act, increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, and filling judicial vacancies with pro-worker judges.
“I think it’s been infectious for working people to see each other standing up, and the fact that they’re taking a risk together collectively and it pays off … like with Nabisco workers—they were able to beat back a two tier wage system. The same at John Deere: They rejected two contracts before they got the deal that they felt was worthy. So, I think that’s contagious and we’re going to be seeing more of it, and I think employers are starting to take notice,” added Shuler.
At the same time that labor unions and leaders have led these calls for systemic changes in the workplace, billionaires and the largest corporations in the US—from Elon Musk to Amazon, Walmart, McDonald’s, Apple, and Google—have vehemently opposed unionization and organizing efforts among their workers while seeing their profits and wealth soar during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Maria Hernandez, a worker at Jack in the Box in Folsom, California, participated in a one-day statewide strike of fast food workers on Nov. 9 in support of California Assembly Bill 257, which would create a statewide council to establish and enforce standards in the fast food industry and hold corporations accountable for franchised restaurants.
“We’re fighting so we can get more benefits, so we can be heard a little bit more. If it gets passed, we wouldn’t have to ask to have air conditioning fixed right away. If we ask and they don’t do it, we can do it ourselves,” said Hernandez.
While still in the middle of a pandemic, Hernandez and her coworkers worked through the summer with broken air conditioning. They also experienced wage theft as Hernandez and her coworkers were often forced to work full 8-hour shifts without any breaks because there weren’t enough workers available to cover. When Hernandez and her coworkers complained, management threatened to call Immigration and Customs Enforcement in retaliation.
Hernandez makes a little over minimum wage, $15 an hour, without any benefits, but said she often performs duties as a team leader despite only getting paid as a regular employee.
“It’s really hard. I’m taking care of my parents and my own family. If we got benefits, I wouldn’t have to pay for my doctor appointments and then worry about giving money to my parents and family,” added Hernandez. “We went on strike for everybody, so everybody can get benefits, not just us. We all work. We make food for everybody going to work in the mornings. We’re there for them. I hope that they’re there for us as well.”