December 5, 2021

Understanding Striketober and Great Resignation

As the economy struggles to recover from the effects of the still raging COVID-19 pandemic, organized labor has experienced a great resurgence with strikes breaking out across the United States.

Strikes have broken out at several major corporations including John Deere, Kelloggs but are also taking place in healthcare and higher education. While the goals of the strikes vary, a common theme is rights for organized labor and increased wages. 

The strikes are part of a widespread resurgence in labor consciousness that have come out of the pandemic, as thousands of workers began leaving unfulfilling employment in a movement some are calling the Great Resignation.  

COVID-19 has been a large motivator, both in terms of the risk it has posed and still poses workers especially in the service industry, who were hailed endlessly as heroes and granted hazard pay but were still ultimately placed in danger. The shutdown of some physical workplaces has also given people the opportunity to reconsider work, as remote work gave greater flexibility than one experiences confined in a traditional 9-5 office job.

This has allowed people to make new decisions, taking advantage of a labor market tipped in the favor of employees rather than employers, and has also inspired a resurgence of labor organizing and pro-labor sentiments. 

After Ronald Reagan broke the air-traffic controller strike in 1981 by firing almost 12,000 striking workers, organized labor lost the prominence it held in previous decades. This created a shift in power, where unions could be dismantled and striking workers could be replaced. This new power dynamic as well as the decline in American manufacturing led to a decline in union presence. But the dynamic may be changing. 

The United Auto Workers union has organized a strike of 10,000 workers to protest conditions in manufacturing at John Deere demanding an immediate raise of up to 6% with plans for an overall raise of 20%. The strike is still ongoing, despite efforts to break the strike with replacement labor. 

Deere and Co. have attempted to bring in non-union workers to break the strike, leading to an accident where a non-union employee drove a tractor into an electrical box due to a lack of experience with the equipment.  

A tentative agreement has been reached as of October 30th, though it is uncertain if striking workers will agree to the union’s terms. 

Kellogg’s is also experiencing a strike, mostly driven by a fear that jobs will be offshored if workers do not consent to massive cuts in benefits including healthcare, retirement, and vacation time. The strike is much smaller than John Deere’s, with only 1,300 workers on the picket line. 

Student workers at Harvard have also gone on strike for a new contract which will increase pay in relation to the rising costs of living as well as a desire to use more third-party consultants for processing Title IX complaints to avoid conflict of interest. 

The strike is 4,500 strong, consisting of 2,000 union workers but another 2,500 are bound by the contract but not necessarily part of the union itself. 

The medical field has experienced a wave of strikes resulting from a variety of reasons, including staffing shortages and resistance to a vaccine mandate. 2,000 nurses have gone on strike at the Mercy Hospital in Buffalo, NY protesting unsafe conditions for workers and patients alike as well as a lack of staffing increasing the burden of the labor. 

Nurses with the Communications Workers of America union strike, demanding more staffing in Buffalo, NY. Photo via CBS.

Meanwhile in Wisconsin, protests have sprung up as nurses refuse to comply with the vaccine mandate

These protests have received support from state Republicans including state Senate Majority Leader Chris Kapenga. The state may join other Republican led states to ban employers from mandating covid vaccination for employees. 

While this great upset in labor is driven by many factors, it is clear that many people are fed up with their employment situations. In a world still grappling with a pandemic, it is clear that there is no going back to normal. This may lead to a resurgence of labor organizing and demonstration, though whether or not it will return to pre-Reagan levels is uncertain. 

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