U.S. Workers Look for New Ways Out

Dan Beltaigne

Summary: Strikes at Kellogg’s, John Deere, and Riot Games are showing new forms of creative organizing not seen before — Editors

In what has been called the effect of the pandemic, strikes and workers’ militancy are on the rise. Frustrated by decades of decline in real wages, working conditions, and political power, and taking advantage of the labor shortage the pandemic has leveraged for them, workers across the U.S. are fighting back and, in some cases, scoring significant wins. While the number of strikes in the past year would have to double and in some cases triple to compare to the number of strikes that normally occurred in any given year during the 1960s and 70s, the uptick in the number of workers on strike in this past month of October was 25,000 compared to the monthly average of 10,000 for the previous three months.[1] While the numbers by themselves cannot indicate more than a statistical trend, what workers have been saying and doing in recent months tells of new energies that have been coming out of labor since before the pandemic began two full years ago.

Let’s take a look:

 

Kellogg’s Strike at a Turning Point

In Kellogg’s cereal plant in Omaha, Nebraska union workers of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers’ International Union (BCTGM) Local 50 went out on strike on October 5th when Kellogg’s first offer was to make “all new employees part of the lower tier with no chance of advancement.”[2] All this occurred amid the fact that Kellogg’s reported gross profits of $4 billion in a time of labor shortages due to the COVID pandemic.

A few days before Thanksgiving, the Kellogg’s and BCTGM broke off negotiations. Earlier this year, in anticipation of a strike, Kellogg’s stopped hiring workers to replace those that retired or quit because, according to union members, management did not want to pay benefits and wanted as few as possible on the picket line should a strike occur.

Now that the strike is entering its third month with no end in sight, workers have lost their health coverage and are having to make the unbelievably high COBRA payments. This is something John Deere did not dare to do in its recent strike. On top of that, Kellogg’s has brought in scabs and is threatening to make them permanent. This, which is possible because Congress has never made it illegal, constitutes a most serious show of bad faith. It is the biggest slap in the face management has delivered thus far to the union.

Daniel Osborne, president of the BCTGM Local in Omaha, declared, “The worst is when you work a 7-to-7 and they tell you to come back at 3 a.m. on a short turnaround,” and “You work 20, 30 days in a row and you don’t know where work and your life ends and begins.”

Disputed by management, one of many grievances workers claim is the 72 to 84 hours work week mandated by Kellogg’s and a point system that punishes workers for noncompliance. Another grievance is having to work understaffed: “There’s been times during Covid when we were 100 workers under what we should have,” says Osborne.

With declining union power, workers’ wages and benefits have been steadily on the decline for decades, but for workers at Kellogg’s, the year 2015 marks the time when working conditions took a big turn for the worse. Telling the union that sales were down, management said workers were going to have to make sacrifices or factories would have to be closed and employees laid off. Cuts in wages and benefits were forced through that divided workers into a two-tiered system. Veteran employees would keep their wages and benefits, but new hires would take a 30% reduction in wages and pay an extra $300 a month for health benefits. The union, of course, was afraid of losing half the jobs and conceded to the changes.

Currently, with the threat of scabs being made permanent and no negotiations taking place, the situation is at an impasse. However, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is set to rule on charges that Kellogg’s has negotiated in bad faith. If it does, Kellogg’s must get rid of the scabs and rehire all its union workers. As one union worker put it: “We’re just looking for something that’s fair.”

In a dramatic turn, Kellogg’s announced on Tuesday, December 7 that they were permanently replacing all union workers with the scabs hired weeks ago.[3] Platitudes of support for the union from President Biden will not do a thing to fix what has been broken. And while the Democrats’ three to two majority on the NLRB might give cause for hope to break the current impasse, a decision by the Board in favor of the union will likely still have to go through the court system for enforcement. In the meantime, striking union workers will be living on the edge, possibly for months before there is a settlement, assuming there is one.

Already there is serious talk of an organized boycott of Kellogg’s products.

 

From John Deere to the Bessemer Amazon Workers

In another strike, recently settled on November 16th, union members won a new six-year contract with John Deere. This was a victory in many respects, but one that fell short with many union members. The pay raises, though more than what management originally was willing to agree to, were less than what many rank-and-file workers were willing to settle for. Many felt United Auto Workers (UAW) leadership didn’t fight hard enough at the bargaining table, feeling leadership has become too remote; this coupled with the fact that, out of the most recent corruption scandal, 15 people in UAW leadership positions were convicted, two of them recent past presidents. As a result, the rank and file voted against the initial contract negotiated by the union. Many feel that what was agreed to is still not enough compared to what they’ve lost in real wages over the years. Many say they voted for the contract because they didn’t know whether public support could be maintained through another round of negotiations.

There are other labor struggles worth mentioning, if only briefly. In the Amazon warehouse unionization drive in Bessemer, Alabama the NLRB ruled on November 29th in favor of the union, throwing out the results of the election despite that the vote was 2 to1 in against the union. It ordered that new elections be held due to “intimidation and interference” that prevented workers from having a fair say in whether they wanted a union.”[4]

This is the only U.S. Amazon facility to seriously attempt to unionize. However, an Amazon facility on Staten Island, which appeared to qualify for an election, dropped its request in October.

 

New Creative Impulses from Labor

These are just but a few of the most recent union struggles. But we need to see these current struggles as the most recent development in a continuity that dates to the massive teachers’ strike in both Arizona and West Virginia in 2018. To do so, we need to tell a fuller story—one that deserves and requires such telling.

Workers are frustrated not only with politicians and corporate elites but also with their own union leadership. It’s not that any of that is new, but it does come after more than four decades of givebacks and takeaways, declining wages, worsening working conditions, and weakening union power. Workers are looking for a way out of this dystopian hell and are finding that they have to fight their own union leadership in many cases.

Strikes and informal walkouts are occurring in greater frequency than seen in recent decades and in industries not accustomed to such activism. To take one example, a New York Times article, one of the best recently on labor,[5] reported on how an ad hoc grass roots organizer (Emma Kinema), who does not work for a union, helped workers at Riot Games in Los Angeles walk off the job for three hours in protest of the company’s handling of sex discrimination cases.

But most unions appear to be reluctant to tap into such new and creative energies. Granted, activities such as Emma Kinema’s don’t directly produce new union members, but workers at Riot Games see it differently. A former organizing director for the AFL-CIO said, “We’re also squandering our responsibility.”

Los Angeles, more than other major U.S. cities, has seen a flurry of union activities in recent months that portends things to come. In January 2019, teachers staged a successful six-day strike under a new union leadership that had been voted in back in 2014. And grocery workers are on the move, not to mention that the newsroom staff of the Los Angeles Times, unionized last year.

While what we have seen may not constitute a full blown movement, great movements rarely start full blown. Workers are showing new forms of creative organizing not seen before. And while workers may not be winning every battle, they are winning many of them, and that’s not been seen in a long time.

 

Footnotes

[1] Data for these figures were put out by the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University and were reported in the NYT: Noam Scheiber, “How the Pandemic Has Added to Labor Unrest” in New York Times, updated Nov. 3, 2021 (Nov. 1, 2021).

[2] Stephen Rodrick, “Cereal Killers: How 80-Hour Weeks and a Caste System Pushed Kellogg’s Workers to Strike” in Rolling Stone, November 30, 2021. Cereal Killers: How 80-Hour Weeks and a Caste System Pushed Kellogg’s Workers to Strike (yahoo.com)

[3] Noam Scheiber, “President Biden assails Kellogg’s plan to replace striking workers” in New York Times, December 10, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/10/business/economy/kellogg-strike-biden.html?searchResultPosition=5

[4] Noam Scheiber, “Union Vote at Amazon Warehouse in Alabama Is Overturned by Regional Labor Office,” in New York Times, November 29, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/29/business/amazon-bessemer-alabama-election.html?searchResultPosition=8

[5] Noam Scheiber, “As Grass Roots Labor Activism Rises, Will Unions Take Advantage?” in the New York Times, September 1. 2019 undated August 20, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/01/business/economy/labor-unions.html?searchResultPosition=1

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