Tens of thousands of Americans will decline to report to work Thursday because of labor disputes, a surge that coincides with a fledgling sense of empowerment among workers who struggled for years to reap the gains of the economic recovery and which could mark a political and economic shift in the balance between employers and their employees.
The striking workers will include nearly 40,000 Verizon employees who walked off the job Wednesday in search of assurances that their positions will not be outsourced or automated in the near future, after contract talks with the company stalled.
The ranks also will include thousands of low-wage workers organized by the Fight for $15 campaign, which is pushing to increase the national minimum wage to $15 an hour. Organizers said that Thursday’s strike would be the campaign’s largest and would focus on picketing McDonald’s, one of the country’s largest employers of low-wage workers. The strikers will include McDonald’s employees but also workers from other fast-food chains, nursing homes and at least one university.
Advocates for workers, including some labor-union officials, said the strikes reflect the growing momentum of a movement that has won high-profile victories for higher pay and expanded benefits in California and New York in recent weeks, and which has grabbed the spotlight in the presidential campaign.
The wins come as several indicators suggest that the economy, after years of delivering high corporate profits but low wage growth following the Great Recession, is beginning to deliver more for workers. Advocates suggested that those trends, taken together, will give workers more confidence to assert their demands.
“You’re seeing a level of militancy, in terms of strikes, that we haven’t seen in some time,” said Christian Sweeney, the deputy director of organizing for the AFL-CIO, the umbrella group for 56 labor unions around the country. “Things are starting to pick up, and I think as people have higher expectations for the economy and for their employers, we’ll see increased strike activity.”
Economic growth has averaged a little more than 2 percent a year, adjusted for inflation, since the recession ended officially in 2009. From the end through 2014, though, the typical American household’s income fell, after adjusting for inflation, according to the Census Bureau.
Working-class disenchantment has grown into a dominant issue in the Democratic and Republican presidential campaigns. The Fight for $15 movement has won minimum-wage increases in several cities and states, capped by agreements in New York and California to raise their state minimums to $15 an hour over the next several years. Both states also adopted more generous paid leave requirements for workers.
Groups of workers are now pushing for similar increases in New Jersey, Cleveland and Montgomery County, Md.
Naquasia LeGrand, 24, will walk off her $8-an-hour McDonald’s job in Troy, N.C., on Thursday. She was one of the original 200 fast-food workers to strike in 2012 at the start of the Fight for $15 movement.
“It’s the people who make this money, who need to stand up and fight back,” she said Wednesday. “Every day, more people like me, living in poverty, are realizing they need to stand up.”
The victories have yet to translate into organizing success for labor groups, who in 2015 represented about 11 percent of American workers, down from 20 percent in 1983, and who have seen states such as Wisconsin and Michigan adopt laws in recent years meant to weaken unions.
Still, “the campaign’s been more successful than anyone could have ever imagined, and these workers are more emboldened than ever,” Kendall Fells, the national organizing director for Fight for $15, said Wednesday. “You’re going to see a domino effect happening across the country.”
Verizon’s strike came after months of stalled negotiations between the company and its workers over contract terms that expired last summer. Executives said they needed more flexibility in the contract to redeploy technicians to service distant parts of the company's network.
“At the end of the day, what we’re really negotiating here in the wireline contracts is the ability to move people to the work and moving work to the people,” said Marc Reed, Verizon’s chief administrative officer.
Union representatives argue that Verizon has effectively offered many of its workers an impossible choice: Relocate for months at a time, potentially resulting in the separation of workers form their families, or lose a job.
Many of the protesting employees say they are concerned about losing their jobs to foreign contractors who lack the skills to troubleshoot customer problems. By the time customers reach a U.S.-based technician, the company representative must spend an inordinate amount of time soothing customer frustration caused by the previous calls with foreign contractors, said Marilyn Irwin, who served as a Verizon operator for 40 years before becoming president of a local union chapter representing Prince George's and Montgomery counties.
Verizon has sought to automate some aspects of customer service so that fewer calls and truck rolls are necessary. Even the automated phone menus have gotten more intelligent, Verizon executives told reporters in a 2014 briefing.
In the early hours of Wednesday morning, about 300 company employees stood picketing outside a call center in Silver Spring, Md.
“Our biggest issue is, we need jobs,” Irwin said. “We need to secure our jobs for the future.”
The rally stretched on through the day and drew members of the Maryland state legislature and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a candidate for U.S. Senate.
The striking workers have also drawn support from the Democratic candidates for president, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Sanders visited Verizon workers on Wednesday and told them, “You’re standing up for millions of Americans,” Reuters reported. “You’re telling corporate America that they cannot have it all.”
Clinton released a statement telling the company to “come back to the bargaining table with a fair offer for their workers.”
Sanders’s criticism of Verizon drew a harsh rebuke from the company’s chief executive, Lowell McAdam. “The senator’s uninformed views are, in a word, contemptible,” he wrote in a blog post. “I challenge Sen. Sanders to show me a company that’s done more to invest in America than Verizon.”
The strikes come as new statistics suggest that wages are finally starting to pick up for American workers. Nearly every Federal Reserve branch reported signs of wage growth in the latest "beige book," a survey of economic conditions released Wednesday. A Goldman Sachs report this week estimated that S&P 500 companies will spend 10 percent of their revenue on labor costs this year, up from 9 percent in 2014.
Those increases are largely independent of most of the minimum wage increases, the first of which are only beginning to ramp up.
Business groups warn that the increases could hamper the recovery and ultimately hurt workers by killing jobs. The industry-funded Employment Policies Institute plans to run a full-page ad in newspapers Thursday warning that higher minimum wages will push companies to automate jobs. McDonald's, for instance, has already installed thousands of touch-screen ordering pads in higher-cost European markets and has tested those systems in the United States.
"Labor unions protesting for a $15 starter wage should be careful what they wish for," the group's ad states. "When customers reject higher prices, entry-level jobs are automated."