Coffee, Books & School: Here’s what you need to know about workers striking across the US

Amid a cost-of-living crisis, workers across the country are striking for better conditions, higher wages and greater power in the workplace.

Last month we had Striketober, now we have Strikevember.

Tens of thousands of workers continue to strike across the country this month, demanding better working conditions, higher wages, and more decision-making powers, among other concessions from corporate management.

Around 2000 staff at 100 Starbucks stores went on strike Thursday. Nearly 50,000 University of California workers walked off the job Monday, while 250 employees at the prestigious book publisher HarperCollins stopped grinding out novels and other publications indefinitely until a deal is reached between its union and company leadership.

This summer job unhappiness across the nation is at an all-time high, according to a Gallup poll. 

“We’ve been seeing this build up over many years and then get pushed by what happened during the pandemic,” said UCLA Labor Center research director Saba Waheed, who said this is happening particularly in many of the lower-skilled jobs where people earn lower wages and have less power and voice.

“So it’s partially about wages, but a lot of the demands often are about negotiating power, about benefits, about child care, about transportation, about housing. These are the issues workers are facing.”

The report noted that around 60 percent of respondents reported being emotionally detached at work, while 19 percent said they were miserable. A third said they were feeling engaged, which is lower than in 2020.

Half of workers reported feeling stressed at work on a daily basis, 41 percent as being worried, 22 percent as sad, and 18 percent as angry.

“Older, traditional unions are organizing in new sectors that they may not have been before, but there are lots of strategies that organizations use to slow that momentum and many of them are being used now,” Waheed said. “And that’s the reason a lot of the Starbucks workers were striking yesterday because they’re getting targeted, there’s retaliation, contract stalling. That deflates the energy.”

That employee discontent has rolled into larger movements, like the Great Resignation and quiet quitting, both of which have helped swell the number of open vacancies throughout various employment sectors. The strike at UC is the largest higher education strike in U.S. history, according to the L.A. Times.

“We have been bargaining throughout the weekend, and while important progress has been made, we are still far apart on many of the issues that will make UC a more equitable university,” Rafael Jaime, president of UAW 2865, which represents 19,000 of the 48,000 workers, said in a statement Monday.

The past year has seen a significant increase in labor activism across various industries – including manufacturing, mining, nursing, teaching, and even employees in the bourbon industry.

In the first half of last year, 26,500 workers went on strike, according to the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University. In the first half of 2022, that number has risen to 78,000 workers, leading to millions of days lost in employee productivity.

For anyone following the U.S. labor movement over the last three years, it can seem complex and, at times, contradictory. Unions are winning again, wages are up, and vacancies have remained plentiful amid the so-called Great Resignation giving employees a little more leverage at the negotiating table.

But on the flip side, company profits margins are at a 70-year high, all while soaring inflation soaks up wage increases, which means “real wages” have gone down.

According to a Bloomberg Law analysis, labor union victories are currently at a 20-year high, with 641 victories this year. That’s an 80 percent increase in wins over 2021.

Despite the victories, union membership remains in decline, partially because of the pandemic, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Union struggles at Amazon and Starbucks have been the most visible, as workers struggle to gain union recognition amid alleged union-busting activities by management.

Starbucks workers staged a strike in August as staff at shops in 17 states stopped working. Amazon workers in Staten Island were awarded union rights even after the Jeff Bezos-owned company protested the result of a recent National Labor Relations Bureau Vote (NLRB). In March, Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama, rejected a union. That was the second vote on the issue of a union after the NLRB vetoed the first result after it deemed Amazon to have illegally interfered with the first vote.

Although smaller in size, the recent rise in strike action is similar to the Strike Wave of 1945 and 1946, where millions of workers across multiple industries walked off the job to force better pay and working hours. The strikes were so detrimental to the U.S. economy that the federal government passed a law that severely restricted the powers and activities of labor unions. Known as the Taft-Hartley Act, the law is still in force today.

But as inflation continues to affect the bottom line of family budgets and profits rise at many of the largest corporations in the country, an end to widespread strike action may be far off.

“When movements catch fire, they can spread very quickly,” said Waheed. “You see that with Starbucks. One store voted to unionize and then another and word spread. It starts to expand very quickly and we could see that in the case of the University of California. Other universities could follow. That creates momentum and power and right now we are seeing a really inspiring labor movement that isn’t slowing down.”

Christopher Harress

Christopher Harress |

Climate change reporter on the east and Gulf coasts.

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