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Kellogg's strikers

Kellogg's strikers. Photo: @BCGTM / Twitter

The United States is seeing a surge in strike activity, and worker dissatisfaction, but this needs to lead to a new wave of unionisation, argues John McGrath

Union membership in the US represents less than 11% of the workforce (less than it was before the Regan era or what it is currently in the UK). This is a historic low. That said, the US has experienced an increase of private-sector labour militancy over the last several weeks, after a period of relative inaction during the height of the pandemic.

Since 1 October, 450 steelworkers have been striking in Huntington, West Virginia; 2,000 hospital workers in Buffalo, New York; 1,400 production workers for Kellogg’s in four states; and a one-day walk-off of 2,000 telecommunication workers happened in California. These strikers joined 1,000 Alabama coal miners, 400 bourbon makers in Kentucky, 700 nurses in Massachusetts, and 200 bus drivers in Nevada who were already on strike. This summer saw settlements with 600 striking Frito-Lay workers in Kansas, 1,000 Nabisco factory workers in five plants, and 2,000 carpenters in the state of Washington.

Last Thursday 10,000 workers at John Deere facilities walked off the job for the first time in 35 years. Their union, United Auto Workers, had meetings in Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Colorado, and Georgia earlier in the week, and rejected the company’s proposed contract that gave only near inflation raises (5%) and eliminated pensions for all new hires. Since 1997, the company has divided its workforce using a two-tiered system, where newer employees are pinched with smaller pensions and fewer health-care provisions in retirement. The rejected contract called for a new third-tier for future hires which would drop pensions all together. All this is being negotiated while the company is enjoying a surge in profitability: 2021 second-quarter earnings reached a record $1.79 billion and operating profits hit $489 million. Strikers aim to dismantle the multi-tiered practice, and to increase wages and benefits for all workers.

There may be more labour militancy to come; 37,000 health-care workers at Kaiser in Oregon, California, and Hawaii have voted to strike. Mirroring the UK Tories’ initial offer, Kaiser offered their medical workers a 1% pay raise in their contract dispute. This is a sizable pay cut, as the US is experiencing 5% consumer-goods inflation. Kaiser also planned a 26% pay reduction for all new hires, introducing a two-tiered contract of their own.

There is a slim possibility that 60,000 film and television workers will walk out, after 90% of the Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees members voted 98% to strike, before a tentative contract was reached this weekend. IATSE members will vote on whether or not to ratify the strike this week (although early reporting suggests a strike will be avoided). 

Leverage for labour

Why is all of this happening now? US workers seem to have more leverage than in recent years. The labour market is tight as workers are quitting their jobs at the highest rate in decades. When US unemployment shrank to 4% in 2018 (ten years after the financial crash when it was double that), strike activity picked up, most notably with the teachers’ strikes.

The pandemic and the US’s terrible handling of the virus have ushered in a new level of worker dissatisfaction, or at least a rethinking of priorities. Over thirty million workers have quit their jobs this year through August. This is happening across the pay scale. Frontline workers, who risked their lives in the pandemic in healthcare, food services, and retail, may be experiencing burnout and a lack of respect for not being rewarded for their efforts. 

Professionals who worked remotely during the pandemic may be hesitant to return to the office, and older workers have left for retirement early. Federal vaccine mandates introduced for government employees and companies that hire over a hundred workers have nothing to do with these quitting ‘epiphanies’, despite the Murdoch press’s best efforts, as Biden’s mandates didn’t correlate with any uptick of people leaving the workforce.

Workers who have to deal with the public seem to be leaving in the biggest numbers. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the month of August saw the most people quitting so far, with the highest numbers being in food and accommodation (892,000 quits), retail (721,000 quits), and health/social assistance (534,000 quits). Maybe obnoxious customers complaining about having to wear a facemask, or moaning about limited services because of supply-chain disturbances have taken their toll? Maybe workers have had enough of bosses who have put their lives in danger, but are unwilling to grant a pay raise after years of stagnant wages, and that was the hair that broke the camel’s back? An upside of all of this is that wages have gone up faster than they did in 2018 when the unemployment rate was also low. Currently workers have more leverage in the US economy then they have had at any point since the recession of 2008, and arguably since the 1980s.

Soon after being elected last November, President Joe Biden promised to be ‘the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen.’ This didn’t happen, but there might be a shift in the US economy regardless. Workers at John Deere, Kaiser, and Kellogg’s are fighting against two-tiered contracts and for future employees they’ve never met. Retail and fast-food vacancies have led to 10% wage increases this past quarter at Target and MacDonald’s, but gains would be far greater if these positions were unionised. Withholding labour might continue to have an impact on the US economy and lead to higher wages. Also, workers who tolerate low wages or stressful working conditions during a crisis expect to be rewarded afterwards. The years 1919 and 1945-1946 saw historic strike waves in the US after the wars ended.

‘Striketober’ is nothing compared to the militancy of 1946 when more than 10% of US workers went on strike, but it has been something of an encouraging month all the same, and if trade unions are able to win important gains, it could motivate individual workers to try to organise.

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