Typically, the US is not considered a ‘hotbed’ of labor unrest.
Yet, this is precisely what we are seeing, as during the month of October, over 100,000 workers have either threatened to strike or actually have walked off the job to demand wage increases, improvements to their work conditions, and basic human dignity.
Dubbed ‘striketober’ by activists and pundits alike, this strike wave is occurring across the country, in various industries.
From workers at a John Deere factory in the midwestern state of Iowa, which produces farm equipment, to nurses at Kaiser Permanente in California and Oregon, people in diverse professions are taking matters into their own hands and demanding changes to improve their lives.
These workers are also doing something else, namely, showing a certain strategic brilliance in choosing now as the time to walk off the job.
For working people around the world, there’s a lesson here in not only showing force in numbers, but also doing so in a way that may actually push authorities to make real change.
This fact of seizing the opportunity and detecting the right time to act should not be overlooked.
Consider the many protests that took place when Trump was President.
Immediately after the former President’s inauguration in 2017, there was the Women’s March, which saw thousands of people take to the streets to denounce Trump and his incoming administration.
These actions, like the strikes taking place now, were nationwide and held in various cities.
There is a key difference, however, in drawing the comparison.
Specifically, the Women’s Marches, for all the disgust and anger that they mobilized, only took place for a day.
Similar kinds of actions – marches called ‘A Day without Immigrants’ – have also in the past been planned and called for on just one day to demand reforming the US’ immigration laws.
Here’s the problem – holding protests that occur for one day may briefly call attention to some cause, but are too easily ignored by authorities.
Sure, activists may get to know one another and learn something about how to set up a march.
Networks that are part of the 24-hour news cycle will broadcast dramatic footage of the mass actions.
Yet, as soon as the public’s attention is grabbed by other headlines, interest shifts to the next shocking thing in the news.
Meanwhile, authorities can turn away and ignore the protests with ease as no real pressure has been brought. This, no matter the protest’s size, no matter the righteousness of its cause.
But now, the ‘striketober’ actions are showing something different.
Perhaps the most important contextual factor is that there’s a chronic labor shortage in the US, which provides an advantageous backdrop for the workers.
The causes for this shortage are many.
Some claim that workers, with the Biden administration distributing payments as part of the COVID stimulus, are choosing to stay at home instead of rejoin the workforce.
Assigning blame to the government in this way, misses other, more likely explanations, not to mention the fact that this kind of claim is a red-herring for anti-government conservative calls to cut public policy across the board.
There’s also the reality that only in three states have government payments equaled pre-pandemic average wages.
Better explanations include how the pandemic caused a significant shift in labor relations, with workers changing jobs as many have decided to take jobs online, as others have opened small businesses.
Retiring workers, some for fear of contracting COVID, as well as tough immigration requirements, similarly, have been seen as contributing factors that have created vacancies in the American workplace.
It is also critical to note that amidst this labor shortage, the workers going on strike are not doing it for just a day.
For these workers, the strike will end when negotiations end.
Perhaps that point will be reached in a week, a month, or a year.
And this is central to the strategic lesson – no deadline has been announced beforehand.
In this context, workers are taking a bad situation for employers and making it worse by adding to the already present labor shortage crisis.
It’s called leverage, and for the for time in decades, it seems that US workers got it.
An additional element not to be overlooked is how these protests take advantage of COVID fatigue.
Or rather, not only are workers mobilizing with favorable economic conditions at their back, but also with the moral legitimacy that they have kept the country going as millions sheltered in place.
Afterall, some of the nurses going out on strike have staffed ICU units during the worst days of the pandemic.
Who, honestly, can find fault with these care workers who have risen to the occasion day in and day out for the past year?
The same can also be said of any of the other workers who were deemed “essential” by government authorities. From farmworkers, to grocery store employees, millions have had to labor as COVID-19 created undue stress in their place of employment.
Unlikely as it may seem, the US is now the place for strike activity and the labor movement.
So, we are left wondering, will other workers join this strike wave? Will it stop at the border, or could it turn international?
While time will provide answers to these questions, what is certain is that working people around the US, and the world, have gotten too little for too long. Perhaps now is the time for real change to happen, with American workers leading the way.