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labor U.S. Labor Unions on the March in 2021 After Years of Decline

Workers went on strike and pushed union drives in record numbers after corporations made giant pandemic profits.

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, The TESA Collective

In 2021 workers appear to have had enough.

Amid constant claims from some industries of labor shortages as the economy recovers from Covid-19 shutdowns, workers have been pushing employers and elected officials to raise wages, improve working conditions and benefits such as paid sick leave through walkouts, protests, rallies and strikes.

The last few months of 2021 saw workers quit at record or near record rates, while an uptick of strikes occurred around the US in October and November 2021.

“I’ve been traveling a lot to picket lines all over the country in the last couple of months, been in so many different states and across all industries. But the one thing that’s been really consistent is the sentiment of the working people who are out there taking the risks is that they are absolutely fed up,” said Liz Shuler, president of the AFL-CIO, the main union federation in the US.

Thousands of workers went on strike in 2021 at Frito-LayNabiscoKellogg’sJohn DeereVolvoFrontier CommunicationsNew York University,Columbia UniversityHarvardcarpenters in the Pacific north-west, hospitals, airports and at coalmines in Alabama, while workers at several fast-food and retail chains including McDonald’sWalmartWendy’sBurger KingBojanglesJack in the Box and Family Dollar, held walkouts or short-term strikes.

Shuler believes that the hardships of the pandemic – when so much focus was put on the sacrifices of workers in often manual jobs that were deemed essential – has sparked a reawakening of labor politics in America, especially as some companies have tried to go back to business as usual.

Shuler added: “When I was walking the line with those Nabisco workers, and Kellogg’s workers, I kept thinking about all of them in the plant, making Oreos and the Ritz crackers, while the rest of us were inside consuming those. Those are the folks that really made the sacrifices and the whole time, they were told that they were essential. Then they go to the bargaining table, and they’re basically disposable because the companies continued to profit through the pandemic and then say, ‘Thanks, but we’re not going to compensate you, we’re not going to protect you, we’re not going to value and reward you for making those sacrifices.’”

One of the year’s most important strikes is playing out in the deep south where about 1,100 coalminers at Warrior Met Coal in Alabama have been on strike since 1 April, as workers fight for better wages after accepting concessions in their previous union contract.

“The past eight months have been some of the hardest times of our lives. I don’t think any of us imagined the strike would be going into its ninth month with no end in sight, but I’m proud of our resolve,” said James Traweek, a miner who has worked for four years at Warrior Met Coal in Brookwood, Alabama.

Other strikes have broken records.

At the Tenet Healthcare-owned St Vincent hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts, about 700 nurses have been on strike since 8 March over understaffing and cuts at the hospital before and during the pandemic, the longest strike in Massachusetts’ history.

Tenet Healthcare has sought to permanently replace nurses on strike as the hospital faces fines from the state for closing down inpatient behavioral health beds due to the strike. An agreement fell through in August over Tenet Healthcare’s return to work agreement that would have prevented some nurses from returning to their previous positions.

“Saint Vincent hospital nurses’ fight has now become all of labor’s fight,” said Marlena. “It’s a big red flag for all of labor and all of humanity that if you stand up for what you believe in on principle and stand up for patients and you stand up for one another as workers, Tenet Healthcare’s strategy is that you can be replaced and will be punished for that. That’s very dangerous, this strategy trying to diminish our union rights instead of coming to a settlement, trying to intimidate nurses to cross a picket line.”

On 18 December, a tentative agreement was reached after the US secretary of labor, Marty Walsh, served as mediator in the final negotiating session, which will end the strike if approved by the nurses.

The Labor Action tracker at Cornell University Institute of Labor Relations documented 346 strike locations in 2021 as of 10 December. Johnnie Kallas, the project director , attributed an uptick in strikes in October and November to increased leverage of workers in a labor market where workers are in high demand and burnout of workers who have continued working through the pandemic.

“Labor market conditions can provide workers with more leverage, but strikes don’t just automatically happen. They often require deep organizing and always require incredible sacrifice,” said Kallas. 

Unionization rates in the US have declined over the past few decades, but several union organizing efforts were launched in 2021 in response to pandemic working conditions, while labor leaders and unions continue pushing for labor law reforms to rein in anti-union employers and facilitate US workers’ ability to organize unions and engage in collective bargaining.

According to unionelections.org, 890 union elections in the private sector were held in the US in 2021 as of 11 December, with 573 resulting in a new union certification. Union election rates and union density in the US have been in a downward decline over the past several decades, though approval of labor unions in the US is at 68% according to a September Gallup poll.

“If we see any changes, it will be next year. Between the tight labor market and the high profile coverage of the strikes and recent elections, Starbucks for example, I’d expect to see some increase,” said Kevin Reuning, assistant professor of Political Science at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, who manages the unionelections.org website. 

Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama, attempted to form the first union at the retail giant in the spring and though the union lost the election, the National Labor Relations Board has ordered a new election to be held due to Amazon’s anti-union misconduct. At the same time New York’s attorney general is pressuring Amazon to reinstate a fired employee and improve safety protections amid a union organizing drive led by the terminated employee, Chris Smalls, in Staten Island.

Starbucks workers in Buffalo, New York, also won a historic union election on 9 December, forming the first union at a Starbucks corporate store in the US. A second branch is likely to have won their union election after challenged ballots are resolved and three more stores are set to hold union elections in Buffalo, New York, and another in Arizona. With the union victory spurring optimism, it could lead to more stores requesting to unionize.

“It was a major victory,” said Brian Murray, a Starbucks barista in the Buffalo area and one of the organizers with Starbucks Workers United. “I think our real fight will be now getting a first contract and hopefully having them recognize the right to organize, but with these wins I’m sure we’ll see more workers organizing nationwide in the near future.”