Socialist Worker

Is a strike wave beginning across the United States? 

Thousands of angry and underpaid workers in the US are striking back. Isabel Ringrose asks what is the driving the increased levels of struggle

Issue No. 2779

UAW union members picket outside heavy vehicle and machinery manufacturer John Deere in Colorado

UAW union members picket outside farm vehicle and machinery manufacturer John Deere in Colorado (Pic: @AFLCIOCO on Twitter)


A surge in strikes in the United States has led to last month being called #Striketober. At least 185 strikes have taken place this year, with around 40 in October.

This equates to more than 100,000 workers striking, threatening or voting to strike in October alone.

The rise in action is hugely ­welcome, and it looks really big in comparison to what came before.

It follows a long period of low class struggle, that has been punctuated by occasional breakthroughs.

Pandemic

The teachers’ revolt in 2018 was one example. The walkouts during the early part of the coronavirus pandemic were another.

One reason more strikes are ­happening now is because workers are angry that they have been saddled with low wages and dreadful conditions after risking their lives during Covid.

And workers recognise the ­importance of fighting back during labour ­shortages, especially as bosses’ profits skyrocketed over the last 20 months.

And in some cases workers are also rejecting their union leaders’ advice.

In September, 10,100 workers at agricultural machinery company John Deere in Iowa, Illinois, Colorado, Georgia and Kansas voted 99 percent in favour of strikes.

Their union, United Auto Workers, met with management to agree a ­terrible contract that would’ve given a raise of just 5 percent, followed by 3 percent pay rises in 2023 and 2025.

It also put in place a two-tier ­pensions system meaning newer ­workers would receive less.

Union leaders said the agreement contained “significant economic gains.” But workers voted 90 percent against it and struck on 14 October.

Over 1,400 Kellogg’s workers are out on strike in plants in Michigan, Nebraska, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. Workers had been forced to work 30 days in a row in 12 or 16-hour shifts.

Lessons of the US strike in the skies 40 years ago
Lessons of the US strike in the skies 40 years ago
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Cuts inflicted will hit healthcare, pensions and holidays. Workers are also fighting against a two-tier system introduced in 2015 that has new employees earning over £7.25 less per hour, with worse healthcare and pensions.

Some 2,500 nurses and staff from the Communications Workers of America are also fighting at three hospitals in Buffalo, New York. Workers are suffering from burnout from the pandemic yet face shortages, lack of support and worsening conditions.

Around 1,100 coal miners in Alabama have been on strike since April and 2,000 carpenters in Washington since the middle of September. And 700 nurses in Massachusetts, 450 steelworkers in Huntingdon, West Virginia are striking.

Meanwhile 6,500 lectures from the University of California, and graduate workers from Harvard, Colombia and Illinois State universities are ­threatening strikes.

More than 30,000 health workers at Kaiser Permanente in California, Hawaii and Oregon have also ­threatened industrial action.

The number of strikes and workers involved in action can give confidence to others to fight.


Repressive laws are used to try to hold back action

The strikes have been likened to a general strike, or a rerun of the 1940s when more than five million workers struck after the Second World War.

It’s extremely positive that struggle and workers’ confidence to defy union orders is on the rise.

This is especially important following the election of Joe Biden where much of the left was swallowed into his “back to normal” campaign.

But individual strikes this year remain small, and the total number of workers’ involved is still limited.

One of the single biggest strikes in US history occurred in 1959 when over 500,000 steel workers struck for 116 days.

A series of teacher strikes saw more than 485,000 workers walk out in 2018 and 425,500 in 2019.

Welcome to strike country - inside the spreading US teachers strikes
Welcome to strike country - inside the spreading US teachers' strikes
  Read More

The lack of struggle today is partly down to repressive American labour regulations. Some 28 states have enacted these ”right‑to-work” laws.

They forbid unions from requiring non-members in an unionised workplace to pay fees for the benefits they gain from collective bargaining.

Employers also hold anti-union meetings to dissuade workers from unionising and can permanently replace striking workers.

The House of Representative passed the Protecting the Right to Organise Act to undo right-to-work laws. It would make it illegal to replace or discriminate against workers who participate in strikes, hire scab labour or require workers to attend anti-union meetings.

But its success in the Senate may be limited, so the Democrats are trying to tuck some of its provisions into Biden’s Build Back Better Act.

Despite the slumps in recent years, tens of thousands of angry workers are again turning to strikes to win.


Approval of unions goes up

Union membership in the United States has been declining in recent decades.

It fell to under 11 percent of employed US workers in 2020, down from 20 percent in 1983 and 35 percent in 1954.

Even in the late 1960s only about a third of all US workers were in a union.

The decline is partly due to anti-union laws and corporate crackdowns on organising.

But it’s also a result of union leaders ramming through rotten deals and acting as arms of business in the workers’ movement.

Until recent years the number of strike days has remained near historical lows since 2002.

Yet 68 percent of Americans now approve of unions, the highest proportion since 1965, according to a Gallup poll from August.

That rate of support climbs to almost 78 percent for people aged 18 to 29.

That needs to be turned into activity, not simply compromise bargaining.


Look beyond Joe Biden   

For many workers, relying on empty promises from politicians isn’t enough after the suffering of the last 20 months.

President Biden’s refusal to openly  support the strikes shows whose side he’s really on.

Rather than saying he supported the strikes, Biden has said he supports the workers’ right to strike.

He added he doesn’t plan to get involved in any of the disputes.

Strikes are adding to labour shortages and supply chain disruptions that are causing chaos for companies and bosses. This is not what Biden wants.

But Biden equally cannot come out and dismiss struggle or damage his image as a supposedly progressive president.


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