Welcome to Striketober: Strike Wave Sweeps the U.S.

Posted on October 15, 2021

Welcome to Striketober: Strike Wave Sweeps the U.S.

By Millie Phillips

It’s so big, it now has a nickname: Striketober.

Throughout the pandemic, increasing numbers of U.S. workers are saying we’ve had enough: enough of low wages and lousy benefits or no benefits at all, enough of sky-high housing costs, enough of precarious gig work, enough of pandemic related danger and overwork, enough of disrespect and abuse, enough of risking our lives while billionaires score record profits and avoid taxes.

As COVID restrictions have begun to ease up, stimulus checks have ended, eviction moratoriums have come to a close, and employment statistics are showing weak job growth, politicians and the media assumed unemployed or underemployed workers would go back to work eagerly, no matter how bad the pay or working conditions, yet employers are scrambling to fill vacant positions. Plus, huge numbers of workers are quitting the jobs they already had, some 3% of the workforce each month since April; a record number of 4.3 million in August alone.

This is now combined with an actual strike wave by union workers and even walkouts and protests by unorganized workers in tech, fast food, and retail occupations. With labor union membership in the U.S. lower than it’s been in living memory and labor laws designed to prevent or discourage union organizing, this strike wave come as a surprise to most, but, increasingly, even the mainstream media and liberal pundits are covering it.

So just how many striking workers are there? The numbers change daily and no one is reporting an exact figure, but Julia Conley, a writer for Nation of Change, claims 100,000 workers are either on strike or have voted to go on strike as of October 14, 2021. Cornell University’s Labor Action Tracker shows at least 169 strikes occurring in 2021, 11 of which involved 1000 workers or more. A strike of nurses at Saint Vincent’s Hospital in Worcester, Mass., has been continuing since March and certain coal miners in Alabama have been out since April.

Workers are currently on strike against 46 employers. 10,000 workers just struck farm equipment manufacturer John Deere, and over 1000 workers at the giant food company Kellogg’s went out October 5. Strike votes have been taken by over 31,000 California healthcare workers at Kaiser Permanente, a huge hospital chain, and by 65,000 workers in various trades in the film industry. The tracker also shows almost 550 labor-related protests reported in 2021. These actions are happening throughout the country and in a wide range of industries and occupations.

Though Time notes in an article dated October 8 that there were far more strikes 50 years ago, union membership was much higher then. This same article cites a July 2021 Gallup poll that shows that public support of unions is now at 68%, up from 48% in 2009 at the height of the “Great Recession.” 90% of Democrats and even 47% of Republicans approve of unions today. 48% of non-union workers indicate they’d like to be in a union. These are the highest figures in more than 50 years.

A labor resurgence was taking place even before the pandemic. (See this Time article from January 2021.) For example, there were 25 strikes of more than 1000 workers in 2019. However, withholding of labor by means other than strikes, such as widespread quitting, is a new phenomenon.

In an article for the Guardian dated October 13, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, now a liberal commentator, notes that job openings have increased 62% this year while workforce participation continues to drop. As pent-up demand increases for goods and services during the pandemic, Reich notes that workers have leverage and are “flexing their muscles for the first time in decades.” While Reich acknowledges this new militancy is an uncoordinated and largely spontaneous effort, he compares it to a general strike.

What does all this indicate? For one thing, it shows a growing awareness of the depravity of the capitalist system. For another, it shows an increasing willingness by workers to take action in defiance of assumptions that U.S. workers are too reactionary, divided, apathetic, complacent, or exhausted to resist.

It also shows the urgency of developing unity among all striking unions on a job site; otherwise, the bosses will just pick off the various categories of workers, including workers with seniority vs. new hires, and pit them against each other. [See accompanying article on impending unified strike at Kaiser, a health-care giant in California.]

On a political level, it underscores the dire need for Congress to pass the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act. Under the PRO Act, employers would be banned from permanently replacing striking workers. Secondary strikes would be legal. United struggle on the shop floor among the disparate unions could be secured.

Passing the PRO Act, however, will require ending the Senate filibuster. As we wrote in the editorial of Issue No. 41 (October 8) of The Organizer Weekly Newsletter in relation to the 220-day Saint Vincent Hospital strike in Massachusetts, a lesson that is applicable to the entire strike wave nationwide:

“But the Democrats refuse to buck the system to ensure majority rule on the issue of the PRO Act, and also in relation to the infrastructure bill, the budget reconciliation bill, the Women’s Health Protection Act, the legalization of all undocumented immigrants, and all other issues that President Biden promised to deliver. Biden is perfectly happy to shield behind the conservative Democrats (notably Senators Joe Manchin the Krysten Sinema) to explain that he is trying to deliver, but his hands are tied.

“In the early 1960s, it took a mass movement, led by Black working-class organizations and their allies, to compel President Lyndon Johnson and the Democrats to pass the Civil Rights Act in 1965. Today, a similar movement needs to take shape in the ranks of the labor movement and among labor’s community allies.

“The AFL-CIO leadership can and must lead the way, it must break with its age-old policy of subordination to the Democratic Party, a party funded and run by Wall Street. The Labor movement must stop providing left cover for Biden and accompanying his every anti-worker measure at home and abroad.”

Building this growing movement into a coordinated force will not be easy since U.S. workers lack political representation and militant leadership. The leadership of most unions is unwilling to educate or mobilize its membership to act independently of the corporate-controlled Democratic Party. We need a party of our own — a working-class party rooted in the unions and communities of the oppressed.

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