United States experiences unusual wave of strikes – 10,000 John Deere workers went on strike in October, and as well as 1,400 Kellogg workers, and now 35,000 Kaiser Permanente healthcare workers threaten to get out.
Workplace experts generally point to two reasons for this increase. First, after working so hard and often risking their lives during the pandemic, many workers believe they deserve better pay and treatment. Second, American workers – especially essential, low-wage workers long underestimated – suddenly feel empowered due to the current labor shortage.
These factors certainly helped spark the wave of walkouts, but there is another huge but often overlooked factor behind strikes: it takes two to get tangled up.
Companies that have faced strikes have often been stubborn and stingy – they are part of a backslid group that clings to the American corporate philosophy of the past decades: Crush your workers and fight your unions. They act as if it was still in the 1980s, when President Reagan’s decision to crush the air traffic controllers union sparked an era of anti-union attacks.
Companies facing strikes don’t seem to realize that times are changing, with a labor shortage giving employees more bargaining power and with greater public sympathy for frontline workers under- paid as income inequality skyrockets.
Neither Deere nor Kellogg seem to have understood this message, nor Nabisco, who recently faced a six-week strike. Neither did Kaiser Permanente, who offered a two-tier contract in which future nurses and other health workers would be paid 26-39% less than current workers. Belinda Redding, a Kaiser Permanente nurse in Woodland Hills, feels insulted by this contract offer; After nurses risked their lives day in and day out for months, Kaiser offered a raise of just 1% per year for three years.
âIt almost looks like a slap in the face,â Redding told me. Kaiser Permanente, a non-profit organization with $ 45 billion in reserves, maintains that its pay levels are 27% higher than “the average market wageAnd are unsustainable.
However, many companies know it’s time to treat workers better. Bank of America raised its minimum wage to $ 21 an hour, while Costco adopted a minimum of $ 17. CVS says it will raise its minimum to $ 15 by next July, and Amazon increases its average starting salary to $ 18 per hour.
But some companies see it differently, seeing it as the time for rollbacks and rework. Even though John Deere forecast record profits of at least $ 5.7 billion this year, more than double the level of last year, and although its CEO’s salary jumped 160% last year and he increased shareholder dividends by 17%Deere initially offered its workers a base increase of 12% over six years, which the workers said would not start to keep pace with inflation. Chris Laursen, a painter at Deere Farm Equipment Plant in Ottumwa, Iowa, earns $ 20.82 an hour after 19 years and complained that Deere first offered him a raise of just 1 $ the first year of the contract.
The strikers were also angry that Deere proposed a new lower pay level that would eliminate pensions for new hires. Deere and the UAW leadership reached a tentative deal on a better contract offer on October 30, but union members rejected this offer on Tuesday and stay on strike.
Kellogg employees complain of working 30 days in a row during the pandemic and frequent 12-hour and 16-hour shifts. After an exhausting year, many were unhappy that Kellogg was demanding a two-tier compensation system that would pay new hire $ 13 less per hour than current workers – the company says they make an average of $ 35.26 an hour – and give them fewer advantages.
If today’s strikes have a specific cause, it is management’s demand for two-tier pay systems that will result in lower wages and reduced benefits or even lower living standards. for future workers. For many companies, requiring two levels of pay makes sense: It appeases current employees by maintaining their pay and benefits, while reducing overall labor costs by paying future workers less. (Deere and Kellogg say they need a two-tier structure to cut costs and stay competitive.)
Of course, the reason business leaders love two tier pay systems is that they undermine unions and divide workers. Two levels are fueling tensions and angering new employees with their unions for accepting management’s demands to pay new employees less. And once established, two-tier systems are extremely difficult to undo.
For unions, it can be tempting to trade wages and benefits for future workers, who aren’t there to complain – yet. But there is also growing resistance to corporate efforts to lower wages and lower living standards for the next generation. âThese are our children and grandchildren. We don’t want a worse future for them, âsaid Deere forward Laursen.
By taking strong positions on this and other issues, unions are establishing an agenda for economic justice. In doing so, in addition to a series of high-profile strikes, the unions won higher public approval this year than at any other time since 1965.
Steven Greenhouse is the author of “Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor”.