The U.S. working class is waking up angry and defiant. More than 100,000 workers are on strike from coast to coast. Here are some of the biggest battles that broke out during “Striketober”:
- 10,000 members of the United Auto Workers are on strike at 14 John Deere plants in Iowa, Illinois, Colorado, Georgia, and Kansas. The manufacturer of construction and agricultural equipment, including tractors, is expected to rake in profits of nearly $6 billion this year. That hasn’t stopped Deere from demanding pension cuts for newly hired workers. Salaried, non-union employees are being forced to cross picket lines to try to break the strike. It’s dangerous for these workers to perform jobs that they’re not trained for.
- 38,000 Kaiser Permanente health care workers in California and Oregon have authorized a strike. After 19 months of putting their lives on the line fighting COVID-19, they want better staffing and wages that get ahead of inflation.
- 60,000 members of IATSE (the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) authorized a strike that would have shut down Hollywood. They’re sick of working 14 or more hours a day so that movies can be completed. The workers’ solidarity forced the studio bosses to come to a tentative agreement.
- 1,400 Kellogg’s cereal workers — members of the Bakery Workers Union (BCTCM) — are on strike in Battle Creek, Michigan, and in Nebraska, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. Kellogg’s CEO Steven Cahillane is collecting $11.6 million this year but doesn’t want to pay Kellogg’s workers a living wage.
- 1,100 members of the United Mine Workers are continuing their strike in Alabama against Warrior Met Coal that began April 1. The striking miners have come to New York City to confront BlackRock ― that controls $9 trillion in assets ― and other big investors in Warrior Met to demand an end to their strikebreaking.
- 2,000 Catholic Health workers are on strike at three hospitals in Buffalo, New York, while 800 nurses are on strike at St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts. Like the Kaiser workers on the West Coast, these essential workers are demanding more staffing for their patients. The nurses in Worcester are up against the Tenet Healthcare chain that runs 65 hospitals. Despite getting $1 billion in federal stimulus funds and a $1.5 billion advance on Medicare payments, Tenet laid off a tenth of its workforce in 2019. These layoffs certainly didn’t help fight the coronavirus.
Fifty years of attacks
Is this current strike wave just accidental? Or is it the start of something big?
Working and poor people in the U.S. have been pushed back since the 1970s. Taking inflation into account, average real wages have been frozen since 1978.
Thousands of union strongholds were destroyed. The biggest victims of this deliberate deindustrialization were Black workers. They accounted for a quarter of U.S. auto workers and steel workers in 1970.
The median income of Black families in the Midwest plunged 36% between 1978 and 1982. The Black majority city of Detroit became the poorest big city in the United States.
Instead of young workers being concentrated in factories and other large workplaces, they were instead railroaded to the big prisons. Since 1970, the prison population has increased seven times. Prisoners are also part of the working class.
Now closed, the A.O. Smith auto frame plant in Milwaukee once employed more than 7,000 workers. Half of these workers were Black. This factory bordered the 53206 ZIP code where 62% of Black men are or have been incarcerated.
Looking at strike statistics also shows how poor and working people were thrown back. In 1970 and 1971 there were around 2.5 million workers on strike, including big strikes against General Motors and General Electric.
The United Farmworkers Union conducted strikes of Latinx, Filipino and Arab workers.
In 1974, there were 424 strikes that involved 1,000 or more workers. (The Bureau of Labor Statistics unfortunately doesn’t give figures for strikes of less than a thousand workers.)
The number of these strikes fell to 96 in 1982, 35 in 1992 and just five strikes in 2009. It rebounded slightly to 25 strikes in 2019.
The willingness of many workers to go on strike or just quit their jobs isn’t an isolated phenomenon. It’s linked to the 26 million people who marched last year to demand Black Lives Matter!
The struggles of Indigenous peoples and their allies against environmentally destructive oil pipelines are part of this fightback. So is the struggle in the U.S. colony of Puerto Rico against LUMA, the privatized electric company.
While the current number of strikes is smaller than during the working class upsurge of the 1930s, they’re just as courageous. The communist leader and workers’ organizer, Vince Copeland, described in 1970 how hard it is for workers to rebel:
“When a few dozen workers in a sweatshop first take fate in their hands and embark upon a strike, they have to go through a revolution in their own spirits; they have to take a chance on losing their livelihood altogether, especially if there has been no union in their shop before, and if they do not succeed in getting recognition from their boss.
“That is why it is so hard to organize the workers even on the elemental level of joining together to prevent the heel of capital from grinding them down altogether, much less organizing to overthrow imperialism and establish socialism.
“When workers lose even one hour’s wages, it is often too much of a sacrifice. Those who are eternally in debt, eternally paying for the washing machine, the furniture or the family automobile, hesitate to take off a day when they are really quite ill; how do they feel when they must face a strike of weeks’ and possibly several months’ duration? (From “Revolutionary implications of the GM strike.”)
Today’s strikes of thousands can lead to organizing millions of workers at Amazon, FedEx, Target and Walmart. The army of home health aides can win union wages and benefits and so can the millions employed in auto body shops, hotels, nursing homes and restaurants.
Two, three many Striketobers!