November 09, 2021

Striketober!

Colby King author photoBy Colby King

Over the past several weeks, we have seen a number of labor actions across the country, including strikes and walk-offs. Some observers have referred to this past month as “Striketober,” with the #striketober hashtag being popularized on social media, including Twitter.

As Catherine Thorbecke of ABC News reported:

A confluence of unique labor market conditions -- including record-high levels of people quitting their jobs and an apparent shortage of workers accepting low-wage jobs -- has contributed to the recent rash of work stoppages, experts say, but they also come after decades of stagnating wages and soaring income inequality in the U.S.

In my Sociology of Work and Organizations courses, we draw on Arne Kalleberg’s work to examine the differences between good and bad jobs. The labor actions workers have taken in Striketober are all about improving the quality of their jobs.

One of the dimensions of the differences between the two types of jobs is risk. Who takes on which workplace risks: the employer or the employee? We saw some evidence at the outset of the pandemic that employers were willing to take on risks, especially for workers deemed “essential.” Employers moved some work remote, implemented mask mandates, and installed plexiglass barriers and improved air circulation.

Unfortunately, many of those improvements to workplace safety have proven to be insufficient or temporary. On Strikewave’s website you can find an interactive map showing the location and other information about complaints made to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) specifically about COVID-19 safety.

The labor shortage, such as it is, may be driven by potential workers’ reasonable fears of unsafe working conditions. Even as vaccination rates increase, many workers may be concerned about bringing COVID-19 or other illnesses home to their children, who may be too young for the vaccine, or to other immunocompromised members of the household. The scarcity and high cost of childcare itself is also contributing to the labor shortage, according to Cleveland Federal Reserve President Loretta Mester. Affordable childcare is a particularly acute problem for the working class.

Liz Shuler, the President of the AFL-CIO, argued that this ongoing wave of labor actions is healthy for the country, explaining:

Strikes are leading indicators that our country is heading in the right direction … 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.

The largest ongoing strike involves about 10,000 members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) at John Deere. In that union’s vote to strike, 90% of membership voted, and 90% of voting members voted to reject the contract offer and to go on strike to pursue a better contract.

While there have been several strikes, the total number of workers involved in strikes this past month has in fact been relatively low. This past month saw about 15,000 workers on strike, about one fifth of the number that were on strike in October of 2019, with most of this October’s strikers involved with the John Deere strike.

Still, total strike numbers are not the only indications of labor activity or worker power. For example, a half dozen crew members walked off the of the set of “Rust,” expressing concern about working conditions, including safety on the set, just hours before cinematographer Halyna Hutchins was fatally shot. Also in October, members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) authorized a strike that would have involved 60,000 workers, but a tentative agreement was reached between IATSE and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, avoiding the strike. The deal now goes to members for a vote.

Workplace safety is an important and complex issue. While it has been a driving concern in many of these labor actions, observers have also been following how work is going in places where employers have brought on temporary workers. At John Deere, the company is hiring non-union salaried workers to take on some of the work typically done by the union members. At one plant one the first day of this arrangement, a non-union salaried employee crashed a tractor into a utility post on the shop floor. At the John Deere plant in Coffeyville, Kansas, Jonah Furman reported on a rumor that a salaried worker was struggling to operate the plant’s furnaces.

This story resonated with me in particular, because of my dad’s work. I’ve written here before about how he worked at Armco (now AK-Steel Butler Works) in Butler, Pennsylvania. He was a member of the Butler Armco Independent Union, which is now UAW Local 3303. My dad spent most of his career at the mill maintaining the controllers for the mill’s furnaces.

I called my dad to talk about this rumor from the John Deere plant and it motivated him to detail the furnaces he was responsible for. In his work, he maintained the controls on 40 different ovens and furnaces across the mill. He explained that there were four big slab furnaces in the Hot Mill, eighteen bakers, six of which were called super bakers, which heat up the metal slabs before they are sent to the grinders. In the Forge Shop he counted sixteen different ovens, each of which were unique. In the Electric Repair shop there was a baker and a “burn off” oven, which was used to burn enamel off of wires. In Central Maintenance, they also had what they referred to as the “Steam Genny,” which was actually a furnace. In his job, he maintained the controls on all of these furnaces simultaneously.

Of course, the furnaces in a John Deere plant are likely quite different from those in a steel mill, but all furnaces are tricky (and dangerous) to maintain. My dad was not surprised to hear that a salaried worker, asked to leave their desk to maintain a furnace, would struggle with the new responsibility!

While strikes express worker power and can lead to better contracts, strikes are also risky, and they impose real burdens and uncertainties on workers who are already in difficult positions. Strikes involve real sacrifices for workers, but also offer the opportunity to substantially improve their circumstances. Beyond the financial risks involved in a strike, picket lines have a long history as locations of violence. Infamous incidents include the Homestead Strike of 1892 involving Carnegie Steel Corporation workers in Homestead, Pennsylvania.

Sadly, the picket line remains a dangerous place. Richard Rich, a UAW member who had worked for John Deere for 15 years, was hit by a vehicle and killed as he reported to the picket line on Wednesday, October 27.

Workers are reconsidering their priorities, and many are looking for work in new fields. These labor activities, and the concerns about a labor shortage, also highlight how workers, for the first time in quite a while, have leverage as they bargain with employers for better pay and working conditions. We may see real and lasting improvements in pay and working conditions for workers across the US as a result of these activities. Hourly wages have increased six months in a row. So, there are some indications that pay and working conditions are trending in a positive direction for workers, in part because they are raising their voices.

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