Column, Opinions

The Pandemic is Helping Workers Recognize Their Power

Across the United States, workers have been exercising their power and calling for strikes over wages and working conditions. So far in 2021, 176 strikes have been called, and October in particular has seen a flurry of labor activism, causing #Striketober to trend for weeks. More than 25,000 workers went on strike in October alone, with John Deere and Kellogg’s factory workers making headlines, and smaller actions among nurses, distillery workers, graduate students, and coal miners have additionally been popping up around the country. This figure does not account for the hundreds of thousands of workers that were given concessions to bring them back from the brink of a strike—for example, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, which represents 60,000 film and television production employees, narrowly averted a strike when it reached a contract that adequately addressed its  demands. Additionally, many non-unionized workplaces, such as Amazon and Starbucks, have been seeing new efforts to unionize. This feels like a defining moment in labor relations, and is worthy of celebration and careful attention.

COVID-19 has created a massive labor shortage—there are 10.4 million open jobs, while only about 7.67 million people are unemployed. A neoliberal economy thrives on the precarity of workers: in times when there is a “reserve army” of replacement workers, employees have very little leverage to demand better without employers threatening to either replace them or outsource overseas. This allows employers to drive down wages, because there is always another replacement who is willing to work for less. The tight labor market spurred by the pandemic is reversing the power dynamic, placing employers in a position where they need to compete for employees by offering better pay and benefits. This phenomenon, coupled with the fact that public approval of unions is the highest it has been since 1965, leads labor organizers to predict that “the stars are aligning” for a resurgence in labor organizing. 

Striking workers are coming to the bargaining table with a full slate of demands, including better wages, health care benefits, stability in the pension and 401(k) system, and more reasonable hours. The traumatic experience of the pandemic is leading workers to re-evaluate their priorities and relationships with work. In the time of COVID-19, workers who were told they were essential are realizing that they are not being treated as essential by their employers. Striking Kellogg’s workers claim that they were made to work up to 30 days in a row, often in 12- to 16-hour shifts. These long working hours, coupled with a pay cut and the slashing of benefits offered to new hires, set the stage for a large labor action. In the case of John Deere, workers got a $1 an hour raise during the deadly pandemic, and were told that new hires would not receive pensions. Meanwhile, John Deere is seeing record profits in 2021, raking in $4.7 billion in profits in the first three quarters. But, only the executives are the ones who see a difference on their paychecks, with the CEO receiving a 160 percent raise. Employees are observing that those at the top are seeing massive benefits, while they put their lives on the line throughout the pandemic without an increase in pay or benefits. This has always been the case, but in 2021, workers are finally equipped with the leverage to change this inequality.

But, the resurgence in labor organizing has a significant limitation—only about 6 percent of the private sector is unionized. Without a union, employees have to individually bargain for raises and changes in workplace policies, and they are not protected if they choose to go on strike. Non-unionized labor action is quieter and more understated, but still massively impactful—rather than call for a strike, non-unionized workers are instead choosing to quit. Termed the “Great Resignation,” a record number of people are currently quitting their jobs because they don’t feel appreciated. Since there are so many open jobs, there is less of a consequence attached to jumping ship to search for a better deal. The mass exodus of workers from exploitative work environments can be conceptualized as a quiet general strike, and may incentivize employers to raise wages and stop short-changing employees. 

Is this a new era in worker empowerment? The deregulation and deindustrialization of the American economy starting in the 1970s gutted labor organizing, but data collected by Cornell University’s Labor Action Tracker shows that this trend may be reversing. The discontent and consciousness of growing inequality shows parallels to the time between the World Wars, which was the heyday of labor action. The traumatic experience of living and working through two World Wars led to an explosion of union activity, when workers re-evaluated their priorities and shifted their attitudes about work and life. The current economic and social environments are similar in 2021. Workers during the pandemic were expected to put their lives on the line for their job, while their employers did not have to take the same risks, but still collected massive paychecks. 

The federal government should take steps to preserve and encourage this resurgence in worker power, first by directing the Federal Reserve to utilize its economic toolbox to support the economy and keep jobless rates low, and second, by passing the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act. The environment is right for employees to begin leveraging their power, but policy changes are necessary to preserve this economic landscape for long enough that transformative changes are able to take root. 

Featured Graphic by Annie Corrigan/ Heights Editor

November 7, 2021