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Opinion ‘Striketober’ isn’t a sign of chaos — it’s a healthy development for the country

Workers picket outside of the Kellogg's plant in Battle Creek, Mich. on Oct. 19. (Nicole Hester/The Grand Rapids Press via AP)

Liz Shuler is president of the AFL-CIO.

The picket line has been crowded lately. Tens of thousands of workers are on strike, including nurses in Massachusetts, United Auto Workers at John Deere, coal miners in Alabama, metal workers in West Virginia, hospital workers in New York, ironworkers in Pennsylvania and Kellogg’s workers in four states.

I recently walked the picket line with Keith Bragg, Darlene Carpenter and other members of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union Local 358 in Richmond. They saw Nabisco making record profits while trying to weaken health coverage for new hires. Bragg and Carpenter told me they refused to sell out their younger colleagues through a two-tiered system — and after a five-week strike, they won a contract that preserved good benefits for all.

Across industries, workers are standing in solidarity to demand dignity and decency. Some observers see these strikes as one more sign of chaos against the backdrop of an endangered democracy, a persistent pandemic and an increasingly unequal economy.

But this is not chaos. It’s the opposite.

Strikes are leading indicators that our country is heading in the right direction — a healthy response to imbalances of power created by employers who believe they should be able to squeeze more and more out of the workers who make their companies profitable. They are profoundly democratic and participatory processes in which workers of different backgrounds and political beliefs unite to take a collective risk in pursuit of a better future: voting to organize, to strike, and to accept or reject contracts.

Workers strike because they’ve hit a breaking point and have no other option. Among those on the picket lines are essential workers who have held up our economy and delivered lifesaving services for the past year and a half. They’re striking now because, despite everything they’ve sacrificed, their employers are still refusing to provide safe workplaces and fair wages.

At the start of my career, I got involved in an organizing campaign to help clerical employees at the electrical utility where I worked; they didn’t have a voice or power like their unionized colleagues in other parts of the company. Through that campaign, I realized that worker solidarity could be the difference between a fair deal and a raw one.

Now, as the newly elected president of the AFL-CIO, America’s federation of labor unions, it’s my mission to bring workers’ voices and perspectives into the national debate.

Nurses, teachers, manufacturers who produce our staple goods and other essential workers are tired of being thanked in one breath and treated as expendable the next. They’re frustrated at being denied health care, meal and rest breaks, living wages, and reasonable hours. They’re done watching CEOs make 299 times more than their workers. John Deere recently raised its CEO’s pay by 160 percent while offering workers a 5 to 6 percent pay increase. That’s how unbalanced our system is today.

Recent hand-wringing about a shortage of workers misses the point. The real scarcity story is a dearth of safe, good-paying, sustainable jobs. It’s in the best interest of any business — and our nation’s economy — to settle strikes, give workers a fair deal and get them back to work.

The labor union is how Americans have always turned bad jobs into good ones. Collective bargaining and negotiating pushes the economy forward so people don’t have to work two or three jobs just to get by. Striking is a right that leads to better policies, better benefits and better lives. And strikes will keep happening until we fix our economy so it works for working people.

The best places to start are the Protecting the Right to Organize Act and the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act. Both would rewrite our labor laws for the 21st century and rebalance the workplace power dynamic.

Two in 3 Americans support unions — the highest marks since 1965 — including 3 in 4 young people. And roughly 60 million people in the United States, or nearly half of all non-unionized workers, would join a union if given the option. But until we update our outdated labor laws, management will continue to intimidate and fire workers who try to organize.

To anyone wondering why Americans are on strike, the answer is clear: Workers are fed up and fired up. The pandemic laid bare the inequities in our system — and now, exhausted and endangered workers simply refuse to return to lousy jobs. It’s time for employers to recognize our rights and their responsibilities.