The United States has experienced a wave of strikes on a scale rarely seen since 1968. All over the country, workers, exhausted by the Covid-19 pandemic, are demanding improvements in their working conditions. Driven by the rise in the cost of living, these thousands of workers are putting pressure on their bosses to grant them wage increases. This encompasses every sector of the economy.
Rise of struggles
Conflicts were already on the rise in the United States before the health crisis, beginning with the autonomous teachers' movement in West Virginia in 2018 (which saw 30,000 strikers in revolt against their unions).(1) Since then, other workers have gone on strike in July at a Frito-Lay snack food factory, a subsidiary of PepsiCo, in Kansas, and have obtained, among other things, the guarantee of a day off per week and pay increases. Ditto at the cookie manufacturer Nabisco (a subsidiary of the giant Mondelez) where the strikers obtained concessions in September after five weeks of conflict. Since March 2020, 1,600 strikes have been recorded in the United States by the independent media Payday Report.(2) The October strikes therefore follow a significant increase in struggles in the United States after 50 years of decline and virtual absence.
In October, more than 100,000 workers in America went on strike or threatened to strike, in a wave of strikes so significant that it was dubbed "Striketober".
On Thursday 14 October, 10,000 workers at farm equipment manufacturer John Deere walked out of work to protest wages and working conditions. Hourly wages were to increase by just 6 cents under the terms of the rejected deal. A laughable increase in view of the latest salary increase of CEO John May who received nearly 14 million euros in 2020, an increase of 160% compared to 2019.(3)
Some 60,000 television and film workers were called to strike on Monday 18 October, while more than 24,000 nurses and other health workers in California and Oregon voted on Monday 13 October in favor of a strike, after stalled wage negotiations with the private hospital group Kaiser Permanente (31,000 workers). However, Kelloggs(4), John Deere and Kaiser Permanente saw their profits increase significantly during the pandemic. These workers are demanding, among other things, a wage increase of 4% per year and longer breaks to combat burnout linked to the pandemic.
This new situation seems to be generalizing around the world and is taking other forms depending on the country.
Portugal, for example, is encountering an unprecedented wave of strike action that the unions cannot stop. Tens of thousands of workers in multiple industries have entered the struggle. In September and October, railway workers, teachers, pharmacists, metro workers, pre-hospital emergency technicians, tax workers and prison guards all went on strike. On 4 November, this situation led to the dissolution of parliament.
In Iran, general and wildcat strikes, most notably in the oil sector, can be seen as part of this same category of resurging struggles of workers around the world.(5)
In France, in particular, the bosses and the management of companies note that many employees do not return to their work and are looking for new jobs, in a strange form of “latent” strike. This phenomenon of the refusal of mind-numbing work is going global.
However, the situation is favorable to strikes because of a labor shortage which forces the bosses to increase the wages of workers, especially the less well paid. To avoid generalized explosions, the various bourgeoisies are pushing the employers to search their pockets.
The United States, as in the rest of this globalized world, is facing a historic event revealed by the health crisis. Whole sectors of the working class are certainly mobilizing – on their own – without being called upon to struggle by unions which have either been discredited or led by senior union officials who do not wish to engage in industrial strikes, for fear of "hindering" their masters in power and of losing their stipends, their privileges and emoluments. However, the unions are quickly trying to take things in hand to rebuild their innocence.
This "Great Strike of 2021" in the United States is made up mostly of the unorganized workforce – low-paid service workers, self-employed long-haul truckers, city delivery drivers, hotel workers, restaurant workers, retail workers, workers on local construction projects, teachers and school bus drivers, nurses "exhausted" by chronic overtime, warehouse and food industry workers pushed hard for 18 months, home helpers operated by intermediaries, etc. The list is long ... despite all the predictions that the working class had disappeared! It is easy to understand that these so-called “front-line” workers are really those who make capitalism function. Without them, everything stops.
A favorable moment in the showdown between bosses and workers
The destruction of jobs in advanced capitalist countries over the past four decades has given way to tens of millions of low-wage jobs, substandard service jobs, temporary jobs, part-time jobs, “gig economy” type jobs (piecework, created by digital platforms) and similar “precarious” jobs. The recent Covid-19 crisis has exacerbated and deepened the economic convulsions of 2020-21. Low-wage, precarious and de facto bonded workers are revolting.
Many workers are refusing to return to unsafe workplaces for low pay. This phenomenon is even described as the "Great Resignation” or the “Big Quit".(6) As Luis Feliz Leon and Dan DiMaggio explain in Labor Notes: "draconian surveillance, massive overtime, short-staffing, two-tier contracts" and other forms of over-exploitation have made American workers less prone to never to accept such jobs.(7) In August it was estimated that 4.3 million workers had not returned to work. (8) At the same time, the extension and revaluation of unemployment benefits have enabled millions of workers to continue to seek better-paying jobs, pushing the employers to offer higher wages, additional guarantees and even signing bonuses in certain sectors, notably the service sector, where vacancies were highest. But workers continue to "withhold their labor", thus creating a labor shortage. A labor shortage usually means wages have to rise.
Is this the start of a change of perspective for the class struggle?
The restructuring of labor markets is however only in its early stages. The "Great Strike of 2021" is just a symptom of this. Commodity markets and the global distribution of goods and services are subject to similar tensions and changes. The repercussions of the flight to financial asset markets – stocks, bonds, derivatives, currencies, digital currency, financial bubbles, etc. – have yet to take effect. When they do, they could prove to be the most unsettling of all.
It is in this new cycle of capitalism that workers' struggles are taking place. To go on the offensive, it will not only take a confrontation with the bosses, but also with the unions. In this sense, the autonomous organization of the rank and file workers, with a view to make the balance of class power more combative, is the only way to develop this new phase of the workers' struggle. But beyond these strikes, all the economic struggles in the world will eventually be defeated if they do not manage to give rise to a real anti-capitalist political movement.
Olivier (Bilan et Perspectives)
(1) https://www.leftcom.org/en/articles/2018-06-01/usa-the-role-of-the-union-in-the-teachers-strikes and http://www.leftcom.org/en/articles/2018-03-11/west-virginia-school-employees-strike-sold-out