- David Sipos
2021 Sees Surge in Union Activity
Disclaimer: This article was originally written during October, but has been updated as numerous strikes and victories for American labor movements continue.
Image credit: Scott Olson, Getty Images, via Breck Dumas, Fox Business
Currently, thousands of workers and union members are on strike across the country in numbers rarely seen in American labor. The widespread strikes in recent months, primarily October, crown a highly successful year for the labor movement in the United States. Union membership and wage growth are both up, and workers everywhere have demanded reforms from their employers.
In Iowa, 10,000 members of the United Auto Workers spent much of October and November on strike against John Deere, one of the largest producers of agricultural equipment. Workers argued that John Deere has seen record profits this year, yet no benefits have made it to them. John Deere employees held out for five weeks, voting down multiple unsatisfactory agreements before agreeing on significant pay raises, pensions for future workers, and bonuses designed to cut healthcare costs.
An even larger strike was narrowly averted when the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), representing over 60,000 workers in the entertainment industry who work behind-the-scenes, like set or costume designers, announced a deal with employers to increase weekend hours and breaks between shifts. Many of the workers’ demands were not fully met by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers who employ them, particularly around wage hikes and the breaks between shifts. However, IATSE narrowly ratified the contract in October.
Numerous smaller strikes are going on across the country. 2,000 healthcare workers in Buffalo, New York, have been on strike since October 1st over safety, healthcare benefits, and wages. More than 20,000 healthcare workers with Kaiser Permanente in California forced wage hikes and greater safety regulations after threatening a strike.
Workers with the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union (BCTGM), employed by cereal producer Kellogg’s, have been on strike for two months now, fighting benefit cuts and outsourcing. Kellogg’s workers rejected a December agreement that they found insufficient, leading Kellogg’s to start seeking replacement workers. President Joe Biden expressed support for the striking workers, denouncing the company’s move.
“Collective bargaining is an essential tool to protect the rights of workers that should be free from threats and intimidation from employers,” Biden said in a statement.
BCTGM has also represented workers in a July strike against the Frito-Lay corporation over what sometimes became 84-hour workweeks, and a September strike against Nabisco, demanding shorter shifts, higher wages, and greater retirement benefits. Both strikes exacted concessions from the companies and new benefits for the workers.
One of the most impressive strikes has been in Alabama, among the workers of Warrior Met Coal. Miners for Warrior Met have been on strike since April 1st, arguing they made lots of concessions to keep the company from bankruptcy and have yet to see restitution. Union members for the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) negotiated a bankruptcy contract that saw cuts to wages and benefits, which was to be temporary. The strike has stretched on for months, seeing minimal progress and several arrests, but Warrior Met workers have not backed down.
An attempt to unionize among Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama was an early indicator of the union activity to come. The Alabama effort garnered national attention and widespread coverage by the media. However, after fierce efforts by one of the largest employers in the country, the union vote failed. Recently, though, a member of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which oversees union activity, ordered a new vote, citing labor law violations by Amazon. The union enthusiasm has spread to New York, where workers for Amazon in Staten Island are collecting signatures to create a brand-new Amazon Labor Union. Workers withdrew their request after the NLRB asked for more signatures, but their effort is continuing.
A Starbucks in Buffalo, New York, made history in December by voting to unionize. The 27 employees voted 19-8 to form the first union at a Starbucks in the company’s history. The Buffalo employees will join Workers United, a branch of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Although another Buffalo Starbucks rejected the union effort, it has already inspired others to file with the NLRB, not just in New York but in Arizona as well.
The union activity is indicative of a broader reexamination of labor in the United States nearing the end of the pandemic. Not only have employed workers exacted concessions, but people entering or reentering the workforce have forced changes. A tight labor market and a continued hesitancy to return to work have compelled businesses to raise wages the most in 35 years. In November, more workers voluntarily quit their jobs than ever before, with more than 3% of the workforce quitting. These resignations suggest that workers are more comfortable leaving their jobs if their employers do not sufficiently support them or accommodate their needs.
It remains to be seen if this reexamination of work will continue into 2022. The pandemic is drawing to a close, and its end may resolve or intensify the recent labor activity. Regardless, it will continue to have broad ramifications for large companies, the economy, and the lives of American workers.