When the United Auto Workers union met John Deere management last month to hash out a labor agreement for 10,000 machine workers, they thought they had a deal: a tentative contract that would give immediate raises of at least 5%, followed by 3% pay bumps in 2023 and 2025. Union leaders claimed that the agreement included “significant economic benefits .”. But workers were not happy.
They were aware that the company was on track for a record profit this fiscal year of almost $6 million . Because corn and soybean prices have risen, the demand for agricultural machinery is high. The company is also struggling to hire workers. Workers felt that they had leverage after decades of concessions.
A majority voted to reject the deal: Last week, they walked off the job at 14 assembly plants in Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Colorado and Georgia.
“We want a fair shake, we want equity — and we don’t feel like we’re getting that,” said Chris Laursen, 51, a painter at a factory in Ottumwa, Iowa, and a former president of UAW Local 74.
For Laursen, who earns $20. 82 an hour after 19 years with the company, a 5% raise amounts to just over a dollar an hour. He wants at least $5 more an hour — a raise of nearly 25% — noting that the chief executive got a 160% raise last year, bringing his total compensation up to $15.6 million. Laursen stated that the timing was right. “We’re witnessing the burst of the cheap labor market.” We’re seeing the rebirth of the American labor movement.”
After decades of stagnating wages and diminishing pension and healthcare benefits, followed by a grueling 19 months working long hours during the COVID-19 pandemic, many American workers are fed up. A small, but growing, number of workers are joining the movement.
John Deere workers join more than 2,000 hospital employees striking in New York, along with 1,400 Kellogg workers in four states, 1,100 coal miners in Alabama, plus smaller bands of steelworkers, whiskey distillers and home healthcare workers.
In Hollywood, a strike by tens of thousands of camera operators, grips, prop makers and other film crew members that threatened to strangle the U.S. film and television studios was narrowly averted last weekend, although workers have yet to agree on a final deal. Meanwhile, nearly 21,000 Kaiser Permanente healthcare workers in Southern California voted this month to authorize a work stoppage.
But for all the #striketober hype on social media, the number of U.S. workers channeling disgruntlement into collective action is relatively tiny: 24,000 workers have gone on strike in October, according to the Cornell Labor Action Tracker, an online database set up this year to document labor protests, big and small.
So far this year, the wave of strikes falls short of the surge of worker solidarity in 2018 and 2019, when a massive wave of teachers walked off the job in states from West Virginia to Arizona, along with strikes involving thousands of private sector workers at General Motors and Marriott Hotels. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 485,000 workers went on strike in 2018 — a nearly twentyfold increase from 2017 — and the momentum carried on in 2019 as 425,500 workers stopped work.
In 2021, one popular avenue for disgruntled workers is simply quitting: More than 4.3 million people, about 2.9% of the American workforce, left their jobs in August — the highest number in more than 20 years.
Robert Reich, a former U.S. Labor secretary, dubs the wave of resignations, mostly in hospitality, retail, and healthcare, “the General Strike of 2021.” Still, with most of the action individual rather than collective, America is far from witnessing a rerun of the 1940s, when more than 5 million workers went on strike in the months after the end of World War II to fight for better wages and working hours.
In 2021’s tighter labor market, many workers have more bargaining power than they have had for years, but they also face significant hurdles as they try to claw back past concessions and force companies to raise wages and improve working conditions. Over the years, American workers have experienced a long cycle of declining pay and benefits, according to Heidi Shierholz, president of The Economic Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based research group and former chief economist of U.S. Department of Labor under the Obama administration.
” We’ve witnessed four decades of increasing inequality and wage stagnation with working people not receiving their fair share in economic growth. This has created the .”
The ongoing tensions have only been exacerbated by the pandemic. As a T-shirt worn by striking John Deere workers put it: “Deemed essential in 2020. Prove it in 2021.”
Across industries, workers face a range of pressures: wages failing to rise with inflation, declining pensions and healthcare benefits, staffing shortages, long working hours with few to no breaks.
At John Deere, workers are seeking to reverse concessions made nearly a quarter-century ago — a two-tier wage and benefit system introduced in 1997 that lowered pay, healthcare benefits and pensions for new employees. The company is trying to introduce a third tier that would replace pensions with 401(k) plans for new hires.
Kellogg workers are also fighting a two-tier system introduced in 2015, when cereals were in decline, that has new employees earning more than $10 less per hour with poorer healthcare and retirement benefits.
Dan Osborn, a 46-year-old mechanic at a Kellogg factory in Omaha, said he and his co-workers had spent the last year working 12-hour shifts and forced weekends at the plant that makes Corn Flakes and Froot Loops.
The company’s proposed contract, he said, was galling as its profits rose by 21% in 2020 and the chief executive received $11.6 million in compensation — 279 times more than the median employee. He said
Workers did not feel sufficiently compensated for their work. He argued that if the company refused wage and benefit increases in times of wealth, future generations of employees would be facing a grim economic future.
“We have many people who are second- or third generation workers in the plant,” he stated this week from the picket lines. “We want to preserve those future generations with well-paying jobs with great benefits where people can have a decent wage, send their children to college, and live the American dream. That’s under threat.”
Kellogg disputes many of the union’s claims, saying most employees have “industry-leading pay and benefits,” with the majority earning $120,000 in 2020, and “unparalleled, no-cost comprehensive” health insurance. Most employees worked an average of 52 to 56 hours a week, it said, and 90% of the time, they volunteered for extra hours.
“The union agreed to a two-tiered system in 2015 to help address rising labor costs, which were out of sync with the market and the rest of our network,” Kris Bahner, a company spokesperson, said in a statement, noting that the company paid a $15,000 signing bonus to each hourly cereal employee in exchange for the changes. “Now the union wants to go back on that agreement.”
One of the nation’s largest healthcare providers, Kaiser Permanente, is attempting to lower wages for new hires by as much as 39% in 2023 — a move that union leaders say would deter skilled workers from entering the field at a time when existing nurses are exhausted.
” These nurses have been working, trying keep those patients alive. They are short staffed,” stated Elizabeth Hawkins (retired nurse and negotiator, United Nurses Assns). “They’re angry.” “They’re angry.”
Kaiser said in a statement that it proposed a “market-based compensation structure” to “address future costs and ensure we continue to be affordable for our members.” The system, it argued, would allow “new employees to be paid above-market wages on average; receive the same excellent, market-leading benefits; and enable us to continue attracting and retaining top talent.”
Kaiser, which made $2.2 billion in profit in 2020, proposes to offer current nurses 1% raises for each of the next three years. The nurses are demanding 4% increases, which is still below the inflation rate, and a commitment for more nurses to be hired.
Hawkins stated that nurses will not strike over low wage proposals but rather because they are angry about staffing, backfill, and workload.
” Until the company addresses that, they will be ready to strike,” she stated. “They know that if they don’t do this, staffing is not going to get any better, care is not going to get any better.”
Union leaders are hoping for a resurgence in activism.
“This is not temporary,” said Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO, which has 1.4 million members and represents more than 20,000 Kaiser nurses who voted to strike. “We’re seeing on the part of workers a new activism where they are frustrated, and they’re angry because they don’t believe that they’ve been treated fairly.”
But some labor experts warn that workers’ newfound bargaining power may not last. Shierholz stated that as the pandemic’s exceptional circumstances resolve, I believe that worker leverage will also diminish. “Under current law, the deck is stacked against a big increase in union activity.”
Amazon workers’ high-profile, but ultimately unsuccessful, union campaign in Bessemer, Ala., she said, was an extraordinary testament to the unlevel playing field between workers and employers. Over the years, labor has been weakened by a proliferation “right-to work” laws that drain unions of operating funding. These laws prohibit unions from charging nonmembers of unionized workplaces fees to receive collective bargaining benefits. They have been enacted in 28 states.
With the growing strength of corporate lobbying, five new states have joined the group since 2012, including Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, West Virginia and Kentucky. In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court extended right-to-work provisions to all public employee unions. Employers regularly host captive audiences for anti-union meetings in an effort to discourage workers from joining unions and can permanently replace striking employees. Labor experts agree that it is illegal for employers to harass, intimidate, or retaliate against workers during union organizing. However, the penalties are so low that it happens often. Unions are decrying the inability to enforce federal laws protecting organizing and are now focusing their efforts on strengthening worker protections in labor-friendly legislations.
In California, unions pushed through a law, Assembly Bill 5, making it harder for companies to classify workers as independent contractors who are not able to unionize. Last month, a Teamsters-backed law in California took aim at Amazon and other warehouse operators, forcing them to disclose workplace speed quotas, which have led to high injury rates. Labor experts are unsure if workers have the ability to use their leverage to alter labor laws in the country.
” “Is it strong enough? To win some labor law reform that would allow for greater organizing success?” stated Ken Jacobs, the chair of the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education. “That’s the real question.”
Public support for unions is high. An August Gallup poll showed 68% of Americans approve of labor unions, the highest percentage in more than 50 years. Workers still face enormous hurdles when organizing. Union membership has declined over the past half century. Only about 10.8% of U.S. workers were members of unions in 2020, compared with a peak of 34.8% in 1954, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The Protecting the Right to Organize Act, a bill passed by the House earlier this year, would help level the playing field, Shierholz said. The bill would require all employees who are represented by a bargaining group to pay fees for representation. This would eliminate state right-to work laws. It would also make illegal the replacement or discrimination of workers who take part in strikes, or require them to attend anti-union meetings.
With little chance of Senate passage, Democrats are trying to tuck some of its provisions, such as increasing penalties on companies for unfair labor practices, into President Biden’s Build Back Better Act. The National Labor Relations Board would be able to fine employers who hold anti-union captive audiences on the jobsite and hire permanent strike replacement workers.
John Deere workers are on strike and the company activated a Customer Service Continuation Plan, which brought non-union salaried employees to the shop floor in order to maintain operations.
Laursen stated that morale at the picket lines remained high.
” This strike has been a long time coming – and people are ready,” Laursen said. “We have been encouraging our members to save for years. It’s going be: “How long can Deere produce?” How long can striking workers remain on the picket lines? Who starves out who?'”