‘Striketober’ : Growing number of U.S. workers are pushing back against employers

The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees union reached an agreement on a new film and TV contract this weekend, averting a strike that would have ground productions around the country to a halt. But it’s not the only showdown between workers and businesses, especially after over a year of risky and demanding work on the front lines of the pandemic. Stephanie Sy reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    This weekend, the entertainment workers union IATSE reached an agreement on a new film and TV contract, averting a strike that would have ground productions across the country to a halt.

    But it's not the only showdown taking place between workers and employers. And after over a year of risky and demanding work on the front lines of the pandemic, as Stephanie Sy reports, many workers say they have had enough.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Judy, thousands of American workers are on strike, and thousands more are preparing to walk out in what some on social media have dubbed Striketober.

    Last Thursday, workers at farm equipment maker John Deere walked out over pay, working conditions, and benefits.

    From Kellogg's cereal factories to film sets and hospitals workers, dissatisfaction is leading to strikes and threats of work stoppages; 24,000 nurses and other health care workers in California and Oregon voted to allow a strike after negotiations stalled with private hospital group Kaiser Permanente.

    The collective action from workers come in the middle of a tight labor market and in a year when many companies have posted record profits.

    We turn to Rebecca Givan. She is an associate professor of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers University.

    Professor Givan, thank you so much for joining the "NewsHour."

    So, what are the major forces that have unleashed this discontent among workers in various sectors that we're seeing?

  • Rebecca Givan, Rutgers University :

    Well, the labor market is tight, but these workers have experienced a lot during the pandemic.

    Many of them continued working, whether in the food supply chain or in health care. Many of them saw their employers bring in record profits, while they were putting their health, their lives on the line, often risking the health and lives of their families.

    And they're really seeing this stark demonstration that their employers don't care that much about them. They don't care about their well-being. They don't care about sharing profits with employees, and they're really reaching their limit. They're absolutely maxed out.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    So, I'm hearing that you believe this is a byproduct of the pandemic, especially for the essential works.

    What other similarities do you see in what workers are asking for across industries?

  • Rebecca Givan:

    Workers are asking for dignity and respect on the job. They're asking for control over their time.

    Many of these strikes are especially focused on mandatory overtime, where workers aren't getting their time off between shifts. They're not getting their weekends. They're being forced to work an inhumane number of hours because demand is so high. And they're also pushing back against two-tier systems, where newer employees are paid less or have worse benefits than longstanding employees.

    A lot of these two-tier systems were developed when times were tough, and the workers thought it was a way to support their employer. But what they're finding is that, when times are good, when employers are making money, they're not sharing the good times with their employees. And they're really pushing back on that.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    I'm sure a lot of workers can relate to that two-tier system that you're talking about.

    But my question is, are organized strikes and unions still the most effective path for workers to express their grievances, especially given that union participation is still at a historic low?

  • Rebecca Givan:

    Yes, for unionized workers, withdrawing your labor or going on strike is really the ultimate weapon.

    But workers are participating in a number of different actions whether or not they're unionized. So we're seeing non-union workers walk off the job together and demand more, whether it's a fix to the air conditioning in overheated workplaces or higher wages. And we're seeing unionized workers strike too.

    We're also seeing workers who don't have the opportunity to act together by going on strike simply quitting and taking a better job elsewhere because the labor market is tight and other jobs are available.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    We have seen some headwinds against workers and organizing, including from big corporations such as Amazon, which this year successfully defeated efforts for unionization at its place.

    But there is a massive labor shortage right now, Professor. So I wonder, how do you think labor unions are viewing this opportunity?

  • Rebecca Givan:

    Right now, we're in a situation where labor law is really stacked against workers who want to form a union.

    So, even though the labor market is tight, and workers do have the ability that demand a bit more, it's still extremely hard to organize a union in your workplace. We saw that at Amazon in Bessemer. Right now, it's Starbucks in Buffalo. We're seeing the resources that an employer will put into fighting off an organizing drive.

    And the labor law really protects workers — really protects employers as they push back against workers. So, even though it would seem like it's a good time to organize, it's still extremely difficult for workers who don't have a union to form one.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And, Professor Givan, I just want to ask one question, which is from the corporate point of view.

    We know that inflation is rising — raising prices for consumers. There are supply issues in the economy right now. Do these work stoppages potentially worsen things?

  • Rebecca Givan:

    Work stoppages can lead to higher wages, of course, as workers win their demands on the — by going on strike.

    But employers are making choices all the time. They're engaging in stock buybacks. They're paying dividends. They're paying significant pay to executives, and there are many ways they can redistribute their profit or decide to budget in different ways that can allow them to pay workers more without passing that entire increase onto consumers.

    So we have to understand that corporations are making choices. It's not a simple calculation that increased wages lead to increase consumer prices.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Rebecca Givan, a professor at Rutgers University, you have given us a lot to think about. Thank you.

  • Rebecca Givan:

    Thank you.

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