The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Strikes are sweeping the labor market as workers wield new leverage

The labor activism runs the gamut of American industry, powered by the same grievances about wages, benefits and quality of life driving the Great Resignation

Workers across the country are on strike over proposed “two-tier” contracts that would cut wages and benefits for new hires and impact workplace morale. (Video: James Cornsilk/The Washington Post)
11 min

Marcial Reyes could have just quit his job. Frustrated with chronic understaffing at the Kaiser Permanente hospital where he works in Southern California, he knows he has options in a region desperate for nurses.

Instead, he voted to go on strike.

While Americans are leaving their jobs at staggering rates — a record 4.3 million quit in August alone — hundreds of thousands of workers with similar grievances about wages, benefits and quality of life are, like Reyes, choosing to dig in and fight. Last week, 10,000 John Deere workers went on strike, while unions representing 31,000 Kaiser employees authorized walkouts. Some 60,000 Hollywood production workers reached a deal Saturday night, averting a strike hours before a negotiation deadline.

All told, there have been strikes against 178 employers this year, according to a tracker by Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, which records only large work stoppages, has documented 12 strikes involving 1,000 or more workers so far this year. That’s considerably higher than 2020, when the pandemic took hold, but in line with significant strike activity recorded in 2019 and 2018.

The trend, union officials and economists say, is an offshoot of the phenomenon known as the Great Resignation, which has thinned the nation’s labor pool and slowed the economic recovery. Workers are now harder to replace, especially while many companies are scrambling to meet heightened demand for their products and manage hobbled supply chains. That has given unions new leverage, and made striking less risky.

Powering the picket line: Workers are turning to tech in their labor battles

In interviews, workers and labor leaders said union members are angry with employers for failing to raise pay to match new profits and are disappointed by the lack of high-quality jobs. They also are frustrated that wage growth is not keeping pace with inflation. Although the average U.S. worker’s hourly pay was up 4 percent in September compared with a year ago, according to the St. Louis Federal Reserve, inflation grew 5.4 percent over the same period.

“The strikes are sending a signal, no doubt about it, that employers ignore workers at their peril,” AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler said in an interview with The Washington Post. “I think this wave of strikes is actually going to inspire more workers to stand up and speak out and put that line in the sand and say, ‘We deserve better.’ ”

Not all work stoppages have been successful. More than 1,000 Alabama miners have been on strike at Warrior Met Coal since April. That same month, 14 oil workers staged a walkout against United Metro Energy in New York; eight have since been fired, according to the local Teamsters branch. And roughly 1,400 workers at Kellogg Co. cereal factories in four states are entering their third week on the picket line.

Still, the labor movement has drawn support from the White House. President Biden made a public statement supporting the Amazon union drive in Alabama — a rare move by a sitting president. And his constant calls to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour have delighted labor leaders.

In Fontana, Calif., Reyes is hopeful. As a covid-19 patient who spent a month in the same Kaiser hospital where he works, he has a unique perspective on pandemic-related staffing shortages.

“I think I got the best care that I could have gotten at Kaiser,” he said. “Now it’s time to pay back the nurses that took care of me” by striking for additional resources.

More than 10,000 John Deere workers on strike after rejecting contract

The strike drives in 2021 run the gamut of American industry: Nurses and health workers in California and Oregon; oil workers in New York; cereal factory workers in Michigan, Nebraska, Pennsylvania and Tennessee; television and film production crews in Hollywood; and more.

The surge in strike activity has yielded mixed results, economists say. Though work stoppages this summer at Nabisco and Frito-Lay helped secure higher raises and new vacation allowances for workers, employers have not made meaningful increases in their workforces or compensation structures.

4.3 million people left their jobs in August. National video reporter Hannah Jewell explains why so many people are calling it quits. (Video: Casey Silvestri/The Washington Post)

Both sides acknowledge the benefit of retaining workers. Management more often would rather deal with a brief strike than absorb higher costs associated with turnover and training new staff. For the employee, a new job isn’t necessarily a better one.

“There’s a cost to searching and a cost to leaving your current employer,” said William M. Rodgers III, director of the Institute for Economic Equity at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. “And maybe some of the desire to strike is predicated out of a level of loyalty that these people have been with this company for a good duration.”

Unions increasingly are seeking changes in the workplace and corporate culture. Some strike drives are pushing for better safeguards against sexual harassment and coronavirus safety protocols, including one at El Milagro, a Chicago-based tortilla manufacturer. Workers at a West Virginia producer of industrial pump parts went on strike Oct. 1 seeking better seniority rights.

Some are attempting to claw back perks that vanished years ago during economic downturns. Striking John Deere workers contend that the company’s massive profit during the pandemic — earnings nearly doubled to a record $1.79 billion last quarter — should be reflected in their compensation, particularly retirement benefits.

Warehouse jobs — recently thought of as jobs of the future — are suddenly jobs few workers want

More than 60,000 members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), which represents Hollywood production workers, had planned to strike Monday unless they reached a deal with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. The two sides arrived at a tentative agreement Saturday night that guarantees workers meal breaks, weekends and breaks between shifts, plus significant raises.

“They do have to change the way they do business,” IATSE President Matthew D. Loeb said, “to avoid a strike, to have good morale and to have safe, healthy employees.”

A spokesman for the television and film producers alliance did not respond to a request for comment.

Labor leaders have defined wage demands as a new frontier for workers’ rights. Unions helped deliver the 40-hour workweek, they note, and the coronavirus crisis has reinforced the need to secure living wages and safer workplaces.

“Especially during the pandemic, where people have worked overtime, they’ve sacrificed. They want to be acknowledged and appreciated,” Shuler said.

Workers on strike at Kellogg’s cereal plants in U.S.

Workers took notice when their companies publicly praised them as heroic and essential in the early days of pandemic, labor leaders and experts say, and it made them angry.

Many saw a disconnect between the accolades and the realities of their jobs, and now interpret “essential” more broadly: They’re not only crucial to helping put food on families’ tables or treating patients, they’re essential to very companies they serve — and can inflict pain by shutting down or slowing operations.

“A strike is really the last resort. That’s labor’s power, a worker’s power is to withhold their labor,” said Kim Cordova, president of the Colorado branch of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. “A company can function without a CEO, but they can’t function without the workers to actually go do the work.”

The movement also illustrates how workers are reassessing expectations. Kaiser Permanente hospitals already faced a worker shortage before covid-19, said Reyes, a member of the United Nurses Associations of California.

Then came the crush of coronavirus patients; Reyes was one of them.

He spent a month in the hospital where he worked — including 11 days intubated. When he was discharged, he begged his doctor to allow him to go back to work, eager to help his colleagues handle the new workload. He took videos of himself doing physical therapy and sent them to his doctor every day to prove he was well enough to return.

“My promise was, I’m going to get better fast,” he said. “I want to get back to work quick. I want to fight covid with the same people who fought covid for me. I want to care for our patients with them.”

Yet, a year later, he voted to strike. He says Kaiser’s planned two-tier wage and benefits proposal that would put new employees at the lower end would make it harder to hire nurses. He’s also worried the company will seek more cutbacks in the future.

Arlene Peasnall, Kaiser’s senior vice president of human resources, said in an emailed statement that the company is proposing the new pay scale because its labor costs are “unsustainable.”

Because Kaiser negotiates with a national alliance of unions, wages are not regionally adjusted, she said, meaning health workers in some areas earn well above market averages.

“Affordability is a real issue in health care, which was highlighted once again during the pandemic,” she said. “… We are trying to be available to more people, and we cannot do that if we are too expensive.”

Why is everyone quitting, and how do I know whether it’s time to leave my job?

In New York, Andre Soleyn, a striking oil terminal operator with Union Metro Energy, said he and co-workers considered looking for other jobs before walking out in April. Other businesses in the industry pay higher starting salaries, he said, up to $8 an hour more than what his co-workers make on average, according to the local Teamsters branch. But getting a new job, especially with such a specific skill set, is more difficult than it sounds, he said. Other employers nearby have unionized workforces, so their retention rates are higher and jobs are harder to come by. Starting at a new company means potentially taking a more junior position and more difficult shift schedules.

There’s also a sense of camaraderie, Soleyn said, among the striking workers. Eight strike organizers, union officials said, were fired from their jobs when they walked out. The Teamsters filed unfair labor practices charges with the National Labor Relations Board over their terminations. United Metro Energy, its parent company Red Apple Group and owner John Catsimatidis did not respond to requests for comment.

“I felt shellshocked in the beginning,” Soleyn said, “but then when I sat down for a little bit and thought about it, I realized they were trying to attack me, because they knew I was one of the guys that was spearheading it and trying to make this place a better place to work. That gave me more resolve that I am on the right track, I am doing something right.”

At Kellogg’s cereal factory in Omaha, employees worked forced overtime during the pandemic to keep up with voracious consumer demand, said Dan Osborn, a mechanic at the plant for 18 years and president of the local Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union branch.

Workers say they are responsible for the $1.8 billion in operating profit the company made in the past four quarters. They worked the hours during a pandemic in the expectation, Osborn said, that Kellogg would not demand more concession during contract negotiations. Instead, the company pitched a new two-tiered wage and benefits system and refused their requests for raises, he said.

Hollywood union reaches deal with producers to avoid nationwide strike

Kellogg spokesperson Kris Bahner said in a statement that under the company’s six-year proposal, employees “would achieve a wage rate of about $35.00/hour” and the new contract would “not only maintain these industry-leading pay and benefits, but offer significant increases in wages, benefits and retirement.”

The company brought in contract labor to restart the Omaha plant last Monday. Osborn said his family and those of other strikers expect they could go weeks without a paycheck.

His wife is searching for another job. He sold one of the family’s cars and is preparing to sell off his childhood baseball card collection. His 13-year-old daughter takes dance lessons, he said. She came up to him one night after dinner and told him that she couldn’t bear to give them up.

“It makes me want to cry a little bit,” he said. “I told her, ‘No matter what, you’re going to be able to dance.’ ”

Aaron Gregg contributed to this report.