Why Are So Many Workers On Strike? : Consider This from NPR In what some have called "Striketober," workers in factories as well as the health care and food industries have either started or authorized strikes in the past month.

Thousands of workers across the U.S. are on strike, demanding better wages, better working conditions and more benefits.

NPR's Ailsa Chang speaks with Joseph McCartin, professor of history at Georgetown, about what this moment means for the future of labor in America and how long the momentum may last.

In participating regions, you'll also hear a local news segment that will help you make sense of what's going on in your community.

Email us at considerthis@npr.org.

'Striketober' And The Power Of Workers

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

For weeks now, dozens of yellow taxicabs have lined up outside City Hall in Lower Manhattan with a message.

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BHAIRAVI DESAI: We are not going to be treated as second-class citizens in a city that our blood, sweat and tears have built for over 100 years.

KELLY: Bhairavi Desai is the president of the Taxi Workers Alliance. That's a union representing 25,000 drivers, many of whom are in debt from loans they used to buy New York City taxi medallions. Those medallions were once worth more than a million dollars, and they gave cab drivers the exclusive right to pick up passengers. But after Uber and Lyft took to the streets, they crashed in value.

DESAI: We're all hungry. We're tired.

KELLY: The city has started a debt relief program, but many drivers say it is not enough relief.

DESAI: You know, we're feeling a certain level of weakness.

KELLY: So Desai is joining the drivers in a hunger strike. She spoke with NPR over the weekend - Day 11 of the strike.

DESAI: The truth of the matter is we refuse to settle for anything less than real debt relief so drivers and their families can get their lives back.

KELLY: Desai says drivers are facing an average of $500,000 in debt and that relief grants from the city are barely putting a dent in that.

DESAI: They're still going to end up being foreclosed on, losing their jobs, everything they've invested into. And along the way, they're going to be living in poverty with 60 to 70-hour backbreaking weeks. It's just not acceptable.

KELLY: Now, the drivers on strike are not asking that all the debt be absolved, but that city officials negotiate with lenders to put a cap on the debt and to allow drivers to make manageable payments of $800 a month. Until then, Desai plans to get by on coconut water.

DESAI: It's dangerous and it's drastic. And I tell you, we've been pushed to that edge.

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CELINE MCNICHOLAS: I think that there is no question that the labor movement is having a moment.

KELLY: Celine McNicholas is director of policy and government affairs at the progressive Economic Policy Institute. She says she's been watching union efforts across the country gaining strength and momentum.

MCNICHOLAS: And I think workers have woken up as a result, frankly, of what the pandemic revealed about the nature of work in this country to the bad deal that they have in our current system.

KELLY: CONSIDER THIS - throughout the U.S., workers are demanding better wages, working conditions and benefits. Coming up, we will look at what the past month dubbed Striketober means for the future of labor in America.

From NPR, I'm Mary Louise Kelly. It's Tuesday, November 2.

It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. So let's talk about that term that began floating around last month...

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Striketober.

KELLY: Striketober.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Have dubbed Striketober.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: After workers at all of the Kellogg company's U.S. cereal plants walked off the job this week.

KELLY: Striketober came as Americans hit more than a year of working during a pandemic, which for many has meant working longer hours while facing increased health risks, all while corporate profits have grown.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Thousands have gone on strike at food plants operated by Kellogg's, Nabisco and Frito-Lay.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: A tentative deal struck between John Deere and the United Auto Workers Union following a two-week strike involving 10,000 workers. Employees...

KELLY: At the same time, employers of all kinds are struggling to fill jobs. Millions of workers are quitting in what some have called the Great Resignation.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: They say give back, we say fight back. Give back...

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Fight back.

KELLY: These demonstrations are getting attention. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh talked to striking Kellogg workers in Pennsylvania. Local news outlets, including Lancaster Online, covered the visit.

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MARTY WALSH: So I just want - you know, I want you to know that, you know, we are watching. You do have support. And I hope that this strike with your leadership, your great union here, along with the company, get together soon, resolve this strike, get you where you belong - on the inside of the fence, not the outside of the fence. So thank you...

MCNICHOLAS: I think that strikes can be incredibly effective.

KELLY: Celine McNicholas from the Economic Policy Institute again.

MCNICHOLAS: I would argue that there is no more effective tool that workers have than withholding their labor from an employer when they are in a fundamentally unjust working situation.

KELLY: But McNicholas says there are limits.

MCNICHOLAS: Unfortunately, the law does work against workers who are on strike in that it provides employers an avenue to bring in replacement workers and essentially defeat a strike through that avenue.

KELLY: Which is exactly what happened with a famous strike back in 1981, when American air traffic controllers walked out.

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RONALD REAGAN: This morning at 7 a.m., the union representing those who man America's air traffic control facilities called a strike.

KELLY: Then-President Ronald Reagan, deciding to play hardball with the striking controllers.

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REAGAN: It is for this reason that I must tell those who fail to report for duty that this morning, they are in violation of the law, and if they do not report for work within 48 hours, they have forfeited their jobs and will be terminated.

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KELLY: More than 11,000 air traffic controllers were fired. It had a chilling effect on strikes for years to come. Well, back then, 18% of private sector workers were unionized. These days, it's only 6%.

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KELLY: So we wanted to know, why the resurgence now? Why are so many American workers either striking or threatening to strike, and how long will this last?

JOSEPH MCCARTIN: I think it's for reasons that you've just suggested.

KELLY: To help us answer those questions, my colleague Ailsa Chang spoke with Joseph McCartin. He's a professor of history and the director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University.

MCCARTIN: Workers have just come through the pandemic, and the economy is just beginning to improve. And usually after a big crisis and when things begin to improve, workers can become more militant. I think the fact that this has coincided with the great resignation is also crucial because we've seen a tremendous upsurge in workers quitting jobs in the private sector. And that's unusual.

In August, we set a record for such quits. And what I think that shows is that there's a broad dissatisfaction that workers feel and that's giving workers who are organized, like the union workers you've just referred to, more leverage. I think the third thing is that people see now that they have an administration in power that's really openly siding with workers and even taking positions in support of strikes. It's very unusual for cabinet members to visit strike picket lines.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: OK. Well, a lot of these things that you have cited, they will be in place, at least for quite some time. So could that mean that we will be seeing even more strikes soon?

MCCARTIN: You know, strikes tend to breed strikes. If workers see that strikes are being effective, they're more likely to use the strike weapon. And actually, that's the reverse of what happened in the case of the PATCO strike. The PATCO strike was such a severe setback for labor that it really discouraged workers to use the strike.

CHANG: And just to be clear, PATCO is the air traffic controllers that you're referring to.

MCCARTIN: Oh, that's right. The air traffic controller strike of 1981, it really set a mood in the country in which workers became fearful of striking. And that led to an almost disappearance of strikes in the private sector of this country. In 1952, there were 470 large-scale strikes, involving at least a thousand workers in the United States. Last year, there were only eight, and of those eight, only two were in the private sector.

CHANG: Well, I'm curious because you've been studying and teaching labor history for years. And in your view, what makes this current wave of strikes significant or unique?

MCCARTIN: I think one of the things that makes it unique is the post-pandemic context. The pandemic disrupted a lot of the status quo and labor management relations in a way that only happened, I think, three times in the 20th century after both of the world wars and during the Great Depression. It was in each of those cases, by the way, that we saw big upsurges in worker militancy. When the status quo gets upended, it changes workers' expectations.

Coming out of World War II, workers had made sacrifices, and they wanted rewards after the war. And I think a similar feeling pervades the American workforce today. A lot of people sacrificed a lot in the past year. The essential workers, for example. And yet they're looking at a labor market that they feel like still doesn't reward them as they feel they ought to be rewarded.

CHANG: Well, when it comes to the power that strikes can exert, when it comes to the leverage that workers have, do you think that workers now actually do have more leverage in this moment?

MCCARTIN: They actually do have more leverage right now, and part of that has to do with the great resignation, which is showing discontent that is tightening the labor market. What's unique about this moment, in a way, is that there is a labor shortage that many employers are complaining about, but it's a labor shortage that's largely worker driven. Workers have been withdrawing from the labor market and dissatisfaction with the jobs that they currently have. We still haven't returned to the job levels we had before the recession. We're at about 80% of what we had before COVID struck.

CHANG: So interesting. But then how long can that leverage last? Like, could this strike-tober (ph) stretch into a months-long wave and have maybe even long-term impacts?

MCCARTIN: It could. It could last for quite a while. The militancy that came up after World War II went on for more than a year, and it did have long-term consequences. The same thing after World War I. And what happened in those cases, especially after World War I, employers started to realize from the post-war strike militancy that workers weren't as happy as they thought that they were and that the jobs needed to be improved, and employers needed to get on that program and make some improvements. And so we could possibly see that.

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KELLY: That was Joseph McCartin, history professor at Georgetown and director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor. He was speaking with my colleague, Ailsa Chang.

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KELLY: You're listening to CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

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