- Annie Mayne
From The Frontline to the Picket Line: Pandemic ‘Heroes’ Revolt
Tens of thousands of workers across the United States are on strike, demanding better wages, working environments, and benefits. Many strikes have been ongoing for months, even years, but the numbers spiked in October, a phenomenon dubbed “Striketober.” Across dozens of communities, industries, and unions, strikes are popping up with little direct coordination with one another, but sharing a common displeasure for the state of labor conditions in the country.
Three of these strikes—at Kellogg’s, St. Vincent's Hospital of Worcester, and John Deere—are emblematic of strikes across the country, representing the main concerns of American laborers. Through them, we can understand not just the grievances many workers share, but also the web of factors that brought them about.
Over 1,400 Kellogg’s employees have been on strike in Michigan, Nebraska, Tennessee and Pennsylvania for over a month after the cereal giant attempted to institute a two-tier system in which ‘legacy’ employees--those who are established at the company--would receive higher wages and greater benefits than ‘transitional’--or new--workers. The wage gap between transitional and legacy employees is $13 an hour, and only legacy employees would have access to healthcare and pension benefits after retirement.
“Why would any worker in the future want to be a part of a union that sold them out and allows them to work the rest of their lives with no insurance and no benefits once they retire?” asks Kevin Bradshaw, vice president of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers’ International Union, which represents workers striking at the Kellogg’s plants in Memphis.
The strike encompasses the entirety of Kellogg’s cereal plants, and has brought cereal production to a grinding halt. Kellogg’s paused worker’s access to their health insurance when the strike began on Oct. 5, but strikers are determined to hold the line until their demands are met.
The union’s bargaining committee announced on Nov. 3 after negotiations with Kellogg they were unable to reach an agreement despite the company abandoning the idea of a two-tier system. In what Kellogg’s called their “best and final offer,” the committee still found dissatisfaction with promised benefits and urged their fellow laborers to “continue to hold the line and stay strong,” in their statement.
Saint Vincent Hospital
Over 700 nurses have been on strike for nearly eight months at Saint Vincent Hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts. They are upset with rising nurse-to-patient ratios as wages remain stagnant and dangerous working conditions.
After being hailed as “Healthcare Heroes” on the frontline of the pandemic for over a year, many of the nurses now feel spurned.
“They’re not concerned about the workers or the people we care for,” said Marie Ritacco, a St. Vincent nurse for over 30 years, in an interview with NBC. “They are worried about their profit margins.”
The strike has received encouragement from the heights of power in Massachusetts. Attorney General Maura Healy has expressed support for the workers, as has the City Council of Worcester. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey have met with the striking nurses, and urged the hospital executives to cede to their demands.
Despite that, negotiations remain stalled. Although it seemed the union and executives had struck a deal in August when both parties agreed to a contract, it quickly fell apart in a matter of days due to disagreement over the document’s return-to-work policy, according to a statement from the union.
Saint Vincent Hospital stands out in their resistance to worker demands, dismissing union claims as overstated and their demands unreasonable. After weeks of threats of hiring other nurses on a permanent basis, those words became a reality. Although the hospital is still seeking the return of the striking nurses, they say they can’t ensure they will be coming back to the same position they left.
As the nurses continue to seek some improvements from the executives who employed them, hospital bosses seem resolved to take a uniquely aggressive approach as negotiations have grinded to a halt. The nurses, too, have events planned through December. The question is, who blinks first?
Over 10,000 John Deere workers across 14 different manufacturing plants have been on strike since Oct. 14, after 90% of members of the United Auto Workers union voted no on a contract agreement between their bargaining committee and employer.
Workers' demands include higher wages and better retirement security, as the company stripped workers hired after 1997 of retiree healthcare and a livable pension. The ‘post 97’ workers say they won’t allow the company to create a ‘post-21’ workforce, making a rallying call of the strike “No third tier!”
Strikers say the auto giant can afford their demands, after the company announced 2021 to be their most successful fiscal year before it even ended, with double the profits made in the first nine months of this year compared to last, and breaking the record they set in 2013.
Tensions are rising at John Deere manufacturing plants, as non-union salaried workers are forced to cross the picket line; leading to accidents and even attacks on strikers.
It is the country’s largest strike since 2019, and has led to a severe supply chain shortage of farm equipment across the U.S., threatening the country’s food supply chain.
Executives at John Deere are in a bind, and their messaging is becoming mixed. As they continue to issue threats of hiring new workers on their terms, they also implore strikers to return to the job. Union members are resolved to see it through, comfortable enough in their newfound power to demand what they feel is owed to them, and confident enough to wait it out.
What is behind the striketober phenomenon? In all three of these cases, grievances mirror many of those expressed by striking workers all across the country, in professions ranging from Hollywood film assistants and university teaching fellows to coal miners and fast food workers. These include increasing workloads, stagnating pay, inadequate safety measures, and a breakdown in negotiations with executives. Many experts cite the pandemic as the root cause at the base of the strikes.
According to Johnnie Kallas from the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell, workers find themselves in a unique position of power: “It's a combination of two factors,” he said. “Workers have more labor-market leverage with employers needing and struggling to hire, and then a lot of these workers have been on the front line of a global pandemic for the past 19 months and were touted as heroes, which has given them lots of leverage.”
After workers were asked by industry executives, most of whom remained remote themselves, to work through a deadly pandemic, risking their own and their families well-being for low wages, the tables are starting to turn. As workers start to flex their power, results are already starting to come in, as executives come to terms with an untenable situation. As thousands of union members still working across the country take note of these results—including 37,000 dissatisfied health workers at Kaiser Permanente, America’s largest healthcare company—perhaps the most pressing question that remains is: how far will things go? It’s entirely possible we’ve only begun to walk that picketed line.