On October 13th, over 10,000 John Deere production and warehouse workers walked off the job for the first time in 35 years. The strike, which has so far lasted over two weeks, began after employees overwhelmingly rejected a six-year contract proposal from John Deere management. Workers represented by United Auto Workers cite decades of suppressed wage increases, the corporation’s record profits during the pandemic, and the proposed contract’s introduction of a “third tier” of reduced employment benefits for new hires as key factors behind the decision to strike.
The John Deere workers are not alone in striking. This fall has experienced the largest wave of labor action in years, with more than 100,000 workers throughout the country currently striking or preparing to strike in what media outlets have dubbed “Striketober”. As reported by The Intercept, a variety of industrial, telecommunication, and transportation workers are currently on strike, both in states with relatively strong labor laws (such as Washington) and states traditionally hostile to organized labor (like Alabama). The scope of this strike wave is impressively broad, ranging from industrial manufacturers such as John Deere to food manufacturers including Kellogg’s, Frito-Lay, and Nabisco and graduate students at Harvard and Columbia. At Kaiser Permanente, nearly 40,000 healthcare workers in Oregon, California, and Hawaii have voted to authorize a strike after rejecting the corporation’s proposed contract, though it remains to be seen if Kaiser management will attempt to renegotiate contract conditions in an attempt to avert the strike. While no strikes have occurred at Hamilton this year, workers on campus are clearly energized: in a first for higher education, student admissions workers recently voted to unionize with United Food and Commercial Workers.
Labor’s newfound energy comes during a period of intense economic disruption. As the COVID pandemic stretches on, millions of Americans are reluctant to endanger themselves or their families by entering a public workplace. Along with health concerns, however, many people are experiencing what labor economist Heather Long describes as a “great reassessment” of their employment conditions. Whether unemployed or working from home, disruptions within the economy have spurred millions of workers to reevaluate their careers and seek out higher-quality jobs, contributing to mass resignations throughout the economy. These conditions have resulted in a large-scale labor shortage at a moment where American businesses and corporations are eager to move past the logistical difficulties and suppressed demand of the pandemic.
While every strike carries a huge amount of risk for workers and their families, this recent increase in labor militancy has the potential to significantly improve the lives of the working class. After decades of shrinking labor power, the unusual economic conditions of the pandemic provide unions with the opportunity to assert their power in the workplace and fight for better working conditions.
Historically, unions and labor activity in general are responsible for some of the most significant improvements in the working conditions of Americans. After the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, an industrial disaster caused by appalling safety standards that resulted in the deaths of 146 workers, unions such as the International Ladies Garment Workers Union were instrumental in establishing and enforcing safety standards within the workplace. In 1936, General Motors workers engaged in a 44-day strike and endured attacks from local police in order to gain recognition of the United Automobile Workers. Their efforts inspired workers to unionize throughout the country, providing the foundation for labor unions to negotiate for higher wages, fringe benefits, and stable employment. In 2018 and 2019, West Virginia teachers engaged in a strike to protest stagnant wages and underfunded school budgets; their actions sparked a wave of teachers’ strikes throughout the country and eventually resulted in teacher pay increases throughout the US.
The benefits of strong unions extend throughout the entire economy, as labor unions reduce inequality by redistributing corporate profits to the working class. This is particularly important in the current economic moment, where decades of neoliberal governance and union-busting efforts have contributed to levels of wealth concentration surpassing the Gilded Age. Since the 1980s, economic productivity has risen over three and a half times faster than wage increases; while the economy is growing, workers increasingly do not have access to the profits their labor creates. These benefits of unionization extend beyond unionized workers; as unions win salary increases and fringe benefits like healthcare, all businesses within the industry are incentivized to raise wages in order to hire competitively.
Most fundamentally, unions are valuable because they democratize the workplace. Almost universally across the political spectrum, Americans agree on the value of democracy in society (at least in theory). But while we are encouraged to democratically engage in government and public policy, the vast majority of Americans have virtually no democratic power at their jobs. We spend most of our waking hours working—why shouldn’t workers share decision-making power in the activities of their employer? Organizing and striking allow workers to assert their autonomy in an increasingly unequal and autocratic economy. Labor unions also provide an avenue for workers to get involved in electoral politics; as members lobby for better employment conditions and engage in public policy discussions, they gain political awareness and are more likely to vote or run for office themselves. While not infallible, unions represent the largest and most effective effort to democratize the economy and mobilize the working public.
So far, the Biden administration’s response to the recent strike wave has been predictably tepid. Despite declaring that he intended to be “the most pro-union President leading the most pro-union administration in American history”, President Biden has failed to publicly support any striking workers beyond reiterating his belief that “workers have a right to strike”. As Biden’s supposed desire for “an FDR-size presidency” becomes increasingly laughable in the midst of recent infrastructure bill negotiations, these strikes represent an excellent opportunity for the President to boost his sagging approval rating. While only 42% of Americans currently support Joe Biden’s actions as president, 65% of Americans approve of labor unions; publicly supporting strikes and placing pressure on employers like John Deere to concede to workers’ demands would be smart politics as well as smart policy.
Ultimately, politicians aren’t going to pass pro-worker legislation on their own accord. An energized and powerful labor movement is needed in order to pressure policymakers into making desperately needed reforms to the American economy. While it is still unclear if recent strikes represent a temporary change in employer-worker relations or the broad resurgence of American unions, Striketober is organized labor’s most promising moment in decades. With luck, it is just the beginning.
If you want to support striking workers, there are several fundraisers linked below that you can donate to:
GoFundMe for John Deere Strikers: https://www.gofundme.com/f/support-john-deere-strike
GoFundMe for the memorial for Richard Rich, a striking UAW worker who was recently killed in a car crash on the picket line: https://www.gofundme.com/f/ebzuse
GoFundMe for Kellogg Strikers:
Fundraiser for Alabama Miners’ Strike: https://actionnetwork.org/fundraising/support-striking-miners-in-alabama/