After an unprecedented slowdown in labor strike activity across the United States in 2020, due primarily to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, 2021 saw a dramatic increase in strike action and increased solidarity for workers across the country. This influx of labor strikes nationwide is speculated by some to be the result of increased economic pressure, a beleaguered workforce, and mandated vaccine requirements under the Biden administration. From strikes within the farming and agricultural sectors, such as the UAW John Deere strike, to the Kellog’s Cereal strikes and other action in the manufacturing sector, no industry is immune to the current attitudes of workers—the only treatment may be for employers and corporations across the country to take notice and improve the conditions for workers everywhere.
Strikes across the country in 2021 have had a major impact on the economy and have signalled to the rest of the world that the United States economy is suffering. Earlier this month, Time Magazine suggested that American workers are aligned in their thinking that it’s the perfect time to strike, and everywhere from Forbes to Instagram are referring to October 2021 as “Striketober”. With the power in the hands of workers, their newfound strength is adding confidence to their fight to be heard. With demands for increased pay and their insistence for safe working conditions and fair collective bargaining agreements that more appropriately reflect their needs, employers are struggling to reconcile their employees’ requests.
On October 1st, 2021, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers announced that “Fifty members of Machinists Union Local 598 (District 54) are on strike for a fair contract at Sulzer Pumps, Inc. in Barboursville, Virginia”; their demands mirrored those of many other worker’s unions across the country: fair treatment, respect for seniority and fair compensation under a renegotiated contract.
The realities of the last 20 months have brought to light issues that were previously ignored or pushed aside in a form of corporate procrastination. The new focus on health, wellness and safe working conditions has shed a light on those business practices that too often neglected and left to slip towards dangerous levels. On October 4th, 2021 in an act of solidary in protest of unsafe working conditions, school bus drivers in Anne Arundel County, Maryland walked off the job.
With resignation across the country on the rise due to what is being referred to as The Great Resignation, sectors are beginning to see strike action due to increased workloads, lack of support and failure to compensate fairly for overtime. Janitorial workers at the Denver International Airport exercised their right to strike on October 1st, 2021, to protest long hours, increase demands, and the increased burdens of sanitation during the COVID-19 pandemic. This follows the pattern of other strike action in 2021 where workers are banding together to fight for a living wage.
While strikes in any sector can prove disruptive to the economy, the public and the impacted organizations and their staff, there is perhaps no other segment of the United States workforce that has been more impacted by labor strikes in 2021 that the healthcare sector. October 11th, 2021, with stress at an all-time high and morale at tragic lows, workers at healthcare giant Kaiser Permanente in Southern California voted to begin strike action; barely a week later, the strike action was extended to offices in Oregon and Hawaii.
Due to Covid-19 and the resulting work stoppages across the country, there was a sharp decrease in the number of strikes in 2020. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “there were 27,000 workers involved in major work stoppages that began in 2020. The education and health services industry supersector accounted for over 75 percent of idled workers. Within these sectors, 21,700 workers were idled for 26 cumulative days.” 2020 saw some of the lowest strike numbers in years, with unions authorizing action on 86 walkouts and lockouts—nearly half the number of strikes in 2019.
The decline of labour strikes in 2020 may not paint the full picture, however, because in 2018-19, instances of strikes were on the rise from previous years. Prior to that recent uptick, there were long periods of time with few strikes nationwide, but there were a record number of workers involved in strike action in 2018, primarily due to the growing disparity between company profits and fair compensation for workers. By the end of the year, 485,000 in the United States had been involved in work stoppage at some point in the year. Among the most contentious sectors, teachers’ unions nationwide saw a dramatic increase strikes due to cuts to public funds for education and low pay.
Due to the economic, social and psychological impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, corporations are struggling to keep pace with the changing needs and expectations of the workforce. Rationale for the recent uptick in labor strikes in the United states varies; from the overall stress and uncertainty of working during a pandemic, to demands that the wages keep up with inflation and the cost of living, it is clear that the working public in a variety of sectors are feeling neglected and disenfranchised by their employers. The thread that ties these workers together is the knowledge that their work and lives have value, and that as members of both unions and non-union employers, they have a voice that deserves to be heard.