US economy

‘Striketober’ suggests workers have less heft than they were told

Persistent labour shortages in the US are supposed to have given low-wage workers newfound bargaining power this year, or so labour reporters like me have been writing for months.

Yet, for the 10,000 John Deere workers that walked off the job at 14 different plants last week — not to mention the 2,700 nurses striking in New York and Massachusetts and the 1,400 employees picketing Kelloggs’ plants in four states — that leverage has been tough to wield against bosses who are not used to negotiating.

Workers say that, despite their need for labour, many employers refuse to compromise. In fact, so many US workers failed to renegotiate their contracts this year and ended up on strike that activists have dubbed this month “striketober”.

Of course some have won gains. Hourly wages are rising. A weeks-long strike by Nabisco across five states ended with a contract that guaranteed workers a day off each week. But the list of success stories is shorter than that of strikes in progress.

As the US reopened after Covid-19 lockdowns much ink was spilled over how workers might control the return to the office. Employers who made unreasonable demands would find themselves without a workforce, or so the narrative went. Many, it seems, never got that memo.

“Reporters have suggested to me that maybe with the pandemic going on and the shortage of workers that we think that we’re in a better bargaining position,” says Dan Osborn, a mechanic and union leader who is organising picket lines outside the Kellogg cereal plant, where he works, in Omaha, Nebraska. “That’s 100 per cent not the case here.”

Kellogg said in a statement that the company was ready to return to the negotiation table whenever the union was, and disputed the union’s account of working conditions and their offer.

At John Deere plants in the Midwest, the story is similar. The agricultural equipment manufacturer is expected to report nearly $6bn in profit this year, smashing the previous record of $3.5bn and workers are asking for a greater share of the bounty. They want raises and traditional pensions for younger workers, rather than 401(k)s, which require worker contributions and do not pay a defined benefit.

“The ag market is very strong right now,” UAW member Chris Laursen told a local broadcast station. “Corn and soyabean prices are up. Farmers are waiting to buy agriculture implements, and we’re sitting here fighting over crumbs.”

Their solution is to strike. Local union chapters, mostly in Iowa and Illinois, are using Facebook to assign shifts on the picket lines and announce training sessions. Workers clump along roadsides, bottled water at the ready, bearing white-and-blue “UAW on strike!” signs.

The union’s strike pay is $275 a week or about $14,000 a year, well below what most workers regularly make. Still, they pledge to stay off the factory floor for as long as it takes for their demands to be met.

Hollywood has narrowly avoided the same fate. Film studios, scrambling to make up for production time lost during lockdowns, initially appeared to dismiss demands for pay increases and guaranteed time off made by the union of 60,000 film and television production staff — including camera operators, set dressers, lighting technicians, hairstylists and writers’ assistants. It would have been the first-ever strike for the union. Would the crews really risk another unpaid break from work?

It seemed so. The union issued an ultimatum forcing the studios to realise what few employers seem to accept: today’s workers are serious. The studios yielded and both sides came to a tentative agreement less than 48 hours before film and TV workers were due to shut down production.

So why are employers across the US digging in? Companies have held the upper hand on pay and working conditions since at least the 2008 financial crisis. But the world is changing and their behaviour, in a tight labour market, looks economically irrational.

If employers want to hold on to their staff, they might do well to remember what the Hollywood studios realised — something in this labour market has to give. This time, I don’t think it will be workers.

Claire Bushey contributed reporting


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