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#Striketober | What's behind the strike wave in the US?

Pam Johnson

October 17, 2021
October is ushering in a growing strike wave in the US. Thousands are on strike now with possibly thousands more on picket lines by the end of the month.  The fallout from the pandemic, in which workers risked their safety to work or got laid off, piled on top of decades of concessions has workers saying enough.  
“#Striketober is a function of greedy bosses trying to recoup the un-recoupable. Workers across every sector in our economy are being pushed to the brink to make up for the lost time during the pandemic shutdown” said Jonas Loeb, communications director for IATSE, International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE).
60,000 IATSE members who work in film and television are set to strike, industry wide, for the first time since the 1940’s. Nearly 90% of the membership turned out for the strike mandate vote and 99% voted for a strike. Industry employers were forced back to the table and a tentative agreement has been reached but the membership has yet to vote on it. This would be the largest private sector strike since 2007 in the US.
Currently, 10,000 workers at John Deere and 1,400 at Kellogg are on strike in multiple states. 2,500 healthcare workers in Buffalo, New York have been on strike since October 1. 1,100 coalminers in Alabama and 2,000 carpenters in Washington have been on strike since September. 
Workers across the US and in many sectors are currently taking strike authorization votes and could be on the picket line in the coming weeks. A list that is growing daily includes: communications workers in California, transit workers in Beaumont, Texas, and Akron, Ohio, public works employees in Minneapolis, Minnesota, dining workers at Northwestern University, hundreds of group home workers in Connecticut, plus graduate workers at Harvard and Columbia University.   
No concessions, no two-tier contracts
Defining features of this strike wave are the unprecedented turnout at strike authorization votes, huge majorities voting in favour of strikes, and workers rejecting poor tentative agreements. 2,000 healthcare workers in Buffalo, members of Communications Workers of America, voted 97 percent in favour of a strike authorization vote and went on strike October 1. 
90 percent of eligible IATSE members also turned to a strike authorization vote, with more than 98 percent of them in support in a workforce of 60,000. A glaring issue is that the use of streaming services like Netflix skyrocketed during the pandemic with a massive jump in profits for streaming companies. But for workers it has produced a brutal production ramp-up . The current workday for IATSE members on film and television sets is a grueling 14 hours with ten hours off between calls. 
Workers are also turning down contract offers by large majorities as employers are using the pandemic insecurity to try to squeeze wages and conditions which have already been chipped away for decades. 
Deere and Co saw massive profit increases before and during the pandemic. Yet, their contract offer would eliminate pensions for new hires.  Workers, members of United Auto Workers (UAW), already face a two-tier system where newer workers receive lower pay, benefits and pensions. This would effectively create a third tier. 
The workers, overwhelmingly, voted down the offer--90 percent of members turned out to vote, 90 percent voted to reject. They are on the picket lines now. One local president said, “The membership is not at all in the mood for another concessionary contract.”
Strikers at Kellogg, makers of breakfast cereal are also rejected a two-tier plan to pay new hires less with fewer benefits. The 1,400 members of Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union (BCTGM) in Michigan, Tennessee, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania stared down threats by the employer to offshore their jobs and hit the picket line.
“We’re fighting for our future,” said a local president at Battle Creek, Michigan plant. “We made it very clear from the onset of negotiations that this was not something we’ll be able to accept.”
Rank and file pressure on the labour leadership
Workers’ frustration and anger at eroding conditions escalated by the pandemic is not only directed at the bosses. Labour leaders who have for decades supported concessions contracts and undermined internal democracy to keep themselves in power are facing rank and file revolts.
At Deere, the union initially refused to reveal details of the tentative agreement. But, member frustration over not being able to see the full language of changes, as well as high-profile contract rejections by UAW members at Volvo’s Virginia truck plant earlier this year, prompted the union to post the information ahead of the vote.
All 100,000 UAW workers and retirees are about to vote in an unprecedented referendum to decide whether top officers will be directly elected by the membership. This could break the delegate-based system that has been manipulated by executive officers for seven decades. 
Teamsters union members are also voting on new leadership after the retirement of James P. Hoffa, who, in 2018, undermined UPS workers’ rejection of a company offer and then had the contract imposed upon them. The slate backed by Hoffa and his supporters is facing a serious run from the Teamsters United slate that is challenging Hoffa’s management- friendly strategy that has led to decades of concessions.
Workers refusing to return bad jobs
A secondary issue for employers is that people laid off during the pandemic are not coming back. Although US employers are begging workers to return to work in the post-pandemic recovery, there is currently a massive labour shortage with millions of jobs unfilled. 
Many of these workers in grocery, fast food and care work were deemed ‘essential’, but most are low waged, non-unionized jobs with no benefits or sick days.  For many there are still COVID impediments to working, like childcare and transportation which haven’t returned to normal. But, even with incentives like signing bonuses and small wages increases, workers are not coming back. 
"Corporate America wants to frame this as a 'labor shortage,'" writes Robert Reich, former US Secretary of Labor. "Wrong. What's really going on is more accurately described as a living-wage shortage, a hazard pay shortage, a childcare shortage, a paid sick leave shortage, and a healthcare shortage. Unless these shortages are rectified, many Americans won't return to work anytime soon."
Working class opportunity
Workers’ frustration at the obscene profit taking by employers in the midst of a deadly pandemic and the history of decades of working conditions being eroded by these same employers is stoking the rising tide of strikes and refusal to return to bad jobs.
These strikes are being supported by the mass majority of the workers within workplace, cutting against employer attempts to divide them. There is also solidarity coming from the community and the labour movement similar to the support for teachers strike in 2018.
Bikers in Omaha Nebraska showed up a at Kellogg picket line to prevent scabs from crossing. 
Striking John Deere workers in Ottumwa, Iowa, reported that restaurants are bringing down food for picketing workers and giving in-store discounts to union members, and Teamsters and UPS workers are refusing to cross the picket line.
The pandemic has in many ways made it more difficult for workers to organize because of isolation. Based on a history of concessions and atomized workforces, employers planned to come out of the pandemic by breaking unions and driving down wages. 
Workers have different ideas. The pandemic has exposed more clearly how capitalism’s profit drive will relentlessly continue. The similar situations of poor and deteriorating conditions for both unionized and non-unionized workers is creating a foundation for confidence and solidarity across the entire working class and tipping the balance of power away from employers.
The fight for the future starts now.  
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