As ‘striketober’ momentum builds, what’s behind the recent spate of worker strikes?

After 19 months of balancing their health and safety working the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic, many low-wage workers have had enough. They’re demanding increased wages, meal and rest breaks, better benefits and shorter shifts. From health care to Hollywood, nearly 100,000 U.S. workers are either striking or preparing to strike to improve working conditions.

More than 10,000 John Deere workers went on strike Thursday, and more than 24,000 health care workers at Kaiser Permanente and about 60,000 Hollywood workers, members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, are preparing to strike. They join thousands of other workers who have recently faced a similar decision, including Kellogg plant workers who are on strike and Nabisco employees who recently ended a weekslong strike.

As the word “striketober” appears online and on social media, it’s clear that momentum is building.

“We’ve definitely seen an uptick in late September and October,” said Johnnie Kallas, a Ph.D. student at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, or ILR, who tracks labor actions across the U.S. “It’s a combination of two factors: Workers have more labor-market leverage with employers needing and struggling to hire, and then a lot of these workers have been on the front line of a global pandemic for the past 19 months and were touted as heroes, which has given them lots of leverage.”

As the word “striketober” appears online and on social media, it’s clear that momentum is building around the actions. Kallas said that as Tuesday, 174 strikes had been documented this year. The ILR classifies a strike as any time worker action leads to a stoppage of work. The John Deere strike brings the total to 175.

The simultaneous worker activism is known as a “strike wave,” said Kate Bronfenbrenner, the director of labor education research at the ILR.

“Strikes can be contagious for unions and workers,” she said. “There are shared issues that are pushing workers to go on strike — and workers are looking at each other and getting inspired.”

The have been many strike waves in U.S. history as working conditions reached a particular threshold and workers refused to accept them any longer.

“These lessons have to be learned over and over again,” Bronfenbrenner said.

In many cases, the pandemic has given workers time to rethink their priorities, and the time away from work has given them renewed perspective. In others, the pandemic was a stark reminder that workers were risking their lives for little reward.

“Covid was a wake-up call, because it wasn’t just you could get injured on the job, but going to work could kill you,” Bronfenbrenner said. “Workers are feeling like they’re working harder than ever and they put themselves out there during Covid and risked their lives for what?”

Catherine Fisk, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, who specializes in employment and labor law, agreed.

“On the low-wage side, these workers were essential. They faced high death rates but couldn’t afford housing or health care,” Fisk said. “Now there’s this activism borne of desperation.”

“Workers are feeling like they’re working harder than ever and they put themselves out there during Covid and risked their lives for what?”

Fisk said social media has helped their efforts by democratizing communication and helping workers not only to get their messages out but also to leverage the reach of the companies they work for and appeal to consumers for support. She said the media are paying more attention to inequalities of wealth and connecting them to low labor standards and wages.

“That attention enables and in some cases empowers workers to use it to try to gain leverage in the political sphere,” Fisk said.

More strikes are likely heading into the fall of next year, which will coincide with the midterm elections, said Tim Schlittner, the communications director of the AFL-CIO.

“This wave has been a long time coming. I think it’ll carry into the midterm elections, because workers are also fed up with the political system, which doesn’t deliver results,” Schlittner said. “Working people are going to be looking for candidates that are aligned with their values, including the right to organize.”

He said that’s where the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or PRO Act, might come into play. The act passed the House but has stalled in the Senate. Experts said it’s putting unique pressure on companies.

Bronfenbrenner said the PRO Act, coupled with continued public scrutiny, could discourage companies from taking extreme action against strikes. She said companies’ poor behavior could give the act the ammunition it needs to pass, which most employers don’t want.

Bronfenbrenner said that unions and workers faced a major setback during the Trump administration but that things have already changed under President Joe Biden. She said the National Labor Relations Board has been more aggressive about enforcing the National Labor Relations Act, cracking down on employers who try to intimidate workers to prevent them from striking. That type of support can work to further embolden workers, she said.

Schlittner said: “No worker wants to go on strike. These are strikes of necessity, of refusing to settle. It’s a tremendous sacrifice to walk off the job along with the pay and security that that comes with. It’s an act of courage to go on strike.”

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