Across the United States intrepid strikers have taken on their bosses, hitting a broader range of industries than they have in decades. Employees are forming unions at low-wage workplaces where it was unimaginable just a few years ago. Clearly, many employers can no longer lord it over their workers with the usual impunity.
This rebellion did not come out of nowhere. For 50 years, U.S. workers have been pummeled by neo-liberal austerity and bipartisan government assaults on organized labor. Then the Covid pandemic hit and schools closed, jobs disappeared, and those deemed “essential” were forced to work on-site under dangerous conditions to keep businesses open and profits pouring in.
Some resign, some cannot. For most of 2021, employees quitting dominated the headlines. Sparked by the pandemic, some people opted to retire, while others wanted the chance to change jobs. Some parents, primarily women, were forced by school and childcare closures to leave employment to take care of children. Hospitality, retail, and healthcare saw a massive exodus from occupations made particularly dangerous by Covid. In November 2021, 4.5 million U.S. workers walked away from their jobs, a record high according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
This phenomenon plays out differently based on gender, race and job type. Low paid workers — the majority being people of color, women, immigrants, and youth — can’t afford to stay at home. They are disproportionately on the frontlines.
For example, industries like meatpacking and warehousing are staffed primarily by immigrants and people of color. Jobs are in close proximity, and usually without health insurance. In Eastern Washington state, immigrant women agricultural warehouse and field workers organized in their community and statewide. They won personal protective equipment, social distancing on the shop floor, and sick leave.
An uprising long in the making. Most people in the U.S. have seen their living standards fall since the 1970s. Technological changes, deregulation, and union busting have all contributed to the overall decline in workers’ material well-being and working conditions. These problems worsened quickly as the pandemic spread. For example, nurses’ unions charge that for-profit hospitals — which is most of them —ramped up pressure on nurses to carry unsafe patient loads to maintain revenue, even as their colleagues have quit, or died of Covid.
But not everyone suffered. In fact, the country’s richest got richer as the coronavirus spread. The U.S. billionaire class grew from 614 to 721 in the eighteen months between March 2020 and October 2021, as their net worth nearly doubled. Their combined wealth of five trillion dollars is nearly twice the amount held by the bottom 50% of U.S. households.
Meanwhile, to maintain profits and production, bosses overloaded those who did show up to work. Understaffing, overwork and speed-ups made jobs increasingly dangerous — so workers took action. Some left jobs. And the resulting labor shortage forced many traditional low-wage employers, like fast food chains, to pay more than minimum wage.
Other laborers came together to organize. The strike wave that swept the U.S. over the last 15 months is the highest since the 1970s. Many strikers are new to the labor movement, and often fighting for their lives.
Worker actions. In the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, employees in the primarily Black workforce are in the midst of a unionization campaign. Organizers maintain that six of their colleagues died on the job in the last year and that the retail behemoth has covered it up. In the run-up to the 2021 unsuccessful union election, management’s union busting was so flagrantly illegal that the National Labor Relations Board ordered a new vote. That second vote is taking place in late March 2022, as this article goes to press.
From coffee servers to coal miners, fast-food staffers to graduate students, teachers to food packagers, workers have struck. Some have rejected multiple inadequate contracts, like the Northwest Carpenters did before being forced to accept a bad deal by an undemocratic leadership. (See “Ranks rebel during Western Washington carpenters’ strike.”)
Others organized new unions in fields not traditionally unionized, including a growing, national campaign to organize Starbucks baristas. Unions, particularly those with members in Covid-vulnerable jobs have picketed; organized car caravans and rallies; and demanded things like hazard pay, personal protective equipment, and decent staffing ratios. And there have been victories.
An injury to one. The breadth of last years’ strikes, walkouts and resignations shows that much of the working class is in motion. But individual strikes are limited to what one group can win by itself. People need the means to connect with and support each other and galvanize community action when management tries to silence them, undermine negotiations, break up strikes, or bust unions.
Right now, workers have momentum on their side. This is a perfect time to discuss, agitate and organize for a broad labor mobilization. To win the most out of this upsurge means that union members need the power and control to set direction and make decisions in their bargaining units — in other words, the rank-and-file need union democracy.
Those with boots-on-the-ground know the needs in their occupation, and that strength comes from standing together.
Individual labor activists can also collaborate to strategize across employer and union lines, instead of workplace by workplace. One example is Seattle’s Organized Workers for Labor Solidarity. OWLS is an open, multiracial, multicultural group of mostly rank-and-file labor activists from different unions, committed to education and action with the aim of building solidarity and fighting spirit in the labor movement.
Now is the time for central labor councils to form robust mobilization committees that organize broad labor and community support not only to strengthen fights for survival, but also to expand the struggle to win gains that can permanently reshape lives.
The current workers’ insurgency presents an opportunity to build a labor movement that fights for all working people, and that proves in real life the truth of the old labor slogan, “in our hands is placed the power.”