Workers rise up in strike wave

Kaiser nurses and other health care workers rallied on September 28 in Oregon just before their agreement expired. Photo: Daniel O'Donnell/Labor Notes
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By Malik Miah

Thousands of workers are on strike right now in the United States, in what is being dubbed “Striketober”. In some cases, bosses are using “replacements” (scabs) to cross picket lines and keep the profits flowing.

Strikers are fed up with poor working conditions, forced overtime, 16-hour shifts, low wages, and few benefits. The strike wave is mainly by “essential workers” who kept the economy running during the COVID-19 pandemic. They can’t work at home as many high-paid tech workers are able to do.

Class struggle is on the rise, as the workers take on the bosses in industry after industry. Tens of thousands of working people have been super-exploited during the pandemic. Yet, calls to raise the minimum wage to US$15 an hour were laughed out of Congress.

A record 4.3 million workers quit their jobs in August. Many of these resignations were due to low pay and poor working conditions. With low unemployment and few benefits, workers are saying “Enough!” and taking other jobs. Others are hitting the streets, telling employers that without them there are no profits.

The strike wave reflects rising working-class anger at the employing class and the failures of “democratic” government. At least 18 strikes began in September-October, or earlier.

Manufacturing

About 10,000 John Deere workers across 14 factories went on strike on October 14, demanding better pay and healthcare coverage. Their union, the United Auto Workers (UAW), has been negotiating a new workplace agreement with the company — which has more than doubled its net income since last financial year, and can clearly afford to raise wages.

The workers — who fueled the turnaround in company sales — aren’t buying what amounts to $1-an-hour wage rise for most employees.

tentative agreement” that had been reached by the UAW and John Deere was rejected by 90% of union members in a vote. The UAW is one of the oldest unions in the country, and had recent success for Volvo workers in Virginia. However, its leadership is out of touch with rank-and-file workers.

According to Labor Notes, UAW members at John Deere have self-organised on a Facebook group called “Post ’97”, meaning employees hired after 1997, with worse wages, benefits and pensions. The current contract for most ‘post-’97’ workers would be a 6-cent raise from what ‘pre-’97’ workers made 10 years ago.

“The company’s proposal to cut pensions for all new hires — creating a ‘post-’21’ workforce — runs up against a moral opposition that aligns with a new economic playing field, causing many workers to tout as a core demand of the strike: ‘No third tier!’”

The company’s initial “offer”, reported Labor Notes, “contained a host of concessions”, including “ending the plant closure moratorium, doing away with overtime pay after eight hours, eliminating seniority-based wage progressions, forcing workers to pay 20% of their health insurance premiums, and many other draconian concessions”.

A second tentative deal between the union and the company was also rejected by a majority on November 2. The strike continues.

Healthcare sector

More than 34,000 healthcare workers at Kaiser — a managed care consortium operating in California, Oregan, Washington and Hawaii — authorised strike action on October 11. The Yes vote was 96% and the strike will commence in early November.

Workers want a 4% wage rise for each of the next 3 years and a commitment to hire more nurses and healthcare workers to help with staff shortages.

The initial company offer for a two-tiered wage system was rejected.

Adrian Eaton, reported on medium.com, that some Kaiser workers are suffering poor mental health after a year of overwork in the COVID-19 “chaos”.

“An estimated 3600 health workers nationally were lost on the front lines, which led to surviving workers developing PTSD. The pay-raises and extra support, they feel, are the least that Kaiser can do as a ‘Thank You’.

More than 700 engineers employed by Kaiser in the Oakland-San Francisco area have been on strike since early September against effective pay cuts and conditions that would allow the company to send employees around the state to avoid addressing understaffing.

More than 800 unionised nurses in Massachusetts went on strike for better working conditions on March 8. They are severely underpaid and overworked due to understaffing at St Vincent’s Hospital, where they work.

Two thousand healthcare workers took strike action for better pay and conditions on October 1 at Mercy Hospital in Buffalo, New York — part of the Catholic Health network.

Patient ratios are out-of-control at the hospital, there is high stress, chronic understaffing and continual staff turnover. Improving patient care and safe staffing ratios are key goals in any new agreement.

Nearly 150 home-care workers at Sunrise Northeast Incstarted striking in Connecticut on October 12, for a 20% wage rise and 90% cut to their healthcare premium.

Food industry

About 1400 union members went on strike at food manufacturer, Kellogg’s, on October 5, forcing breakfast cereal manufacturing in the country “to a standstill”, wrote Eaton.

Meanwhile, fast food giant McDonald’s announced in July they would be raising minimum wages for their employees. The minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. Doubling it would benefit 32 million workers across the country.

However, the wage-rise would only apply to its “corporate-owned” outlets (5% of its outlets around the world), and not its franchisees.

McDonald’s workers in Flint, Michigan “decided to get what they deserve and help workers across the country do the same,” wrote Eaton, and took strike action in July.

Kicking off on Labor Day (September 6), 420 workers at Heaven Hill Distillery in Kentucky went on strike for better pay and rostering.

Workers at the El Milagro tortilla factory in Chicago, Illinois, began protesting unfair working conditions in September. The company forces workers into close contact with each other, completely ignoring public health requirements.

As yet un-unionised workers from two facilities recently organised the El Milagro Tortillas Workers Committee to advocate for better conditions.

An estimated 85 Milagro workers contracted COVID-19 last year, and five died from the disease. Picketers are demanding a $16 minimum wage and safe working conditions.

Coal, iron and steel

About 1100 unionised coal miners went on strike against Warrior Met Coal Mine in Alabama on April 1, after the union and the company failed to agree on terms for a new workplace agreement. The miners’ picket cost the company about $7 million in lost earnings in the second quarter of this year alone, reported Eaton.

Iron workers in Pennsylvania went on strike on October 3,after their employer, Erie Strayer, cut their health benefits.

The US is the only advanced capitalist country that does not have a national healthcare system and thousands of workers go bankrupt after not being able to pay exorbitant health care bills.

Four hundred and fifty steelworkers in West Virginia started striking for better agreements in JuneThey are employed by two major companies: Special Metals and Sulzer Pumps.

Tech and warehousing

About 1200 workers at Spectrum Cable are still on strike after more than four years, making it the longest strike in US history. They have even set up their own union public Internet Service Provider in opposition to the company, called People’s Choice Communications.

At Amazon’s warehouse in Staten Island, New York City an organising drive is being led by Christian Smalls, a former employee at the warehouse who became the face of worker unrest at the company last year.

The new Amazon Labor Union filed for a representation vote on October 25.

What the strike wave means

There are many reasons for the strike wave. There are labor shortages as the bosses adjust to the pandemic. It is especially true in the service and manufacturing industries. Labor has more leverage.

The other issue is corporate greed. Workers made huge concessions over the past 30 years, especially after the Great Recession in 2007-09. Unions took two tier contracts where new hires made much less that established workers. In most cases parity was never reached. Workers want this stopped and reversed.

At Kaiser and other hospital chains, which are reaping billions in profits, management says union wages are “not competitive” with non-union rates as justification for new concessions.

Another common issue is working conditions. All strikes involve working long shifts, no time off and forced overtime. In some cases, workers are forced to work seven days a week.

The power of these strikes and rank and file militancy could signal a shift and revitalisation of the movement. Unions have been in decline for decades, even though a majority of wage workers say they want to be in a union.

Politically, the leadership of unions is tied to and subordinate to the Democratic Party and the Joe Biden presidency. It is hard to organise the unorganised with this failed political perspective.

However, Striketober is an indication that workers no longer see their working future tied to what the mainstream political parties and Congress does.

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