The past two years in the US have seen an increase in the numbers of strikes.
Like a drowned man bobbing on the bottom of a lake, the increase in strikes comes at a time of historically low strike numbers. Years of suppressed wages, combined with the fragmentation of the workforce and the relative decline of industry have created poor conditions for strike activity. The active agents of the suppression of struggle form a familiar apparatus of power within unionism. In the US, these are the AFL-CIO and the Democratic Party. Part of why strike numbers are in the single digits per year is the active obstruction of strike activity by the unions, making deals with capitalists and avoiding strikes. This makes the situation of the unions worse as without strikes there is no threat to the capitalists, and no reason to cut a deal with a force that doesn't threaten them. Present conditions aren't permanent conditions however and there is only so far the traditional political forces can contain unrest through standard political means.
Alongside labor shortages are tent cities full of workers who probably won't be brought back into the workforce any time soon. Over a hundred million working age adults are no longer in the workforce, by choice or otherwise.(1) For those who are in the workforce, they are faced with overtime regimes, limited freedom of movement or assembly. There is certainly plenty of reason for workers to be at a breaking point with capitalist employers. While a massive number of workers are not in the workforce at all, those who are in the workforce face a workplace regime of forced overtime and austerity.
In the media, the capitalist class seems to be paying slightly more attention to strikes than in years past. This is an unusual phenomenon as labor struggles are among the least covered news stories in the American media sphere. The ideological focus in part has to do with the Democratic faction realizing that they still need to convince workers to keep voting for them. Anything to make sure their flock doesn't stray. Only in rare instances do workers buck the union heads and the ruling party that control them. It is, above all, an apparatus that is highly experienced at taking control of social struggles.
In 2020, there were about eight labor stoppages in large workplaces. 2021 has seen these numbers increase to 19, by the end of October. There were strikes in education, health care, mining, ship building and food production. As of this writing, the largest strikes of the past two years were the strikes at the Bath Iron Works shipyard in Maine and the John Deere strike.
Issues around the Bath Iron Works strike involved grievances over a dozen concessions made involving changes to seniority and the hiring of "subcontractors". 4,300 members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) Local S6, went on strike. Bath Iron Works employs some 6,800 workers at one of the largest shipyards in the US. After a month-long strike the IAM negotiated a deal where minor concessions surrounding paid holidays and "merit pay" schemes were addressed, most likely not addressing the central issues surrounding seniority and the hiring of subcontractors.
More recently the John Deere workers, around 10,000 scattered across 14 different facilities from Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Georgia and Colorado, went on one of the largest strikes of the past two years. Central to the conflict was the company's multi-tier pay scale and their performance linked pay increase system where workers are required to keep upping their production and finding new ways to produce more in order to get pay raises. Failure to make production increases can result in losing pay. New hires on the low tier would see their pension plans replaced with a riskier 401k scheme.
One worker, quoted in the Guardian, described their strike as the "...summation of years of negative wage movement and would probably have happened last contract had the layoff situation not happened."(2)
The first contract was introduced to workers in the usual United Auto Workers (UAW) style, in the form of an executive summary of the contract, whose full text usually doesn't get shared with the workers. The workers voted down the first contract offer, which is usual given the strong-arm tactics used by the UAW when they really want workers to accept a contract. With several minor tweaks the UAW managed to push through the final offer which was almost the same as the first offer. The UAW modus operandi is that "if at first workers don't concede, try, try again."
The contract does include a 10 percent pay increase spread over the course of a six year contract, with further 5 percent pay increases in 2023 and 2025. The contract left out the replacement of pensions with 401k plans for new hires. It keeps intact the multi-tier pay scales. The workers might have held out for more but with the holidays looming and the margin of support dwindling with each contract ratification vote, a contract was inevitably approved.
The most egregious working conditions were highlighted by the strike of Frito-Lay company workers. A regime of permanent forced overtime exists at the plant where workers work sometimes a month at a time without a day off. With wages stagnating for 15 years for workers the only way to get more pay is to work more overtime. The Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union (BCTGM) negotiated a contract that maintains the mandatory overtime but now guarantees one day off a week and gives them a 4 percent pay increase over the next two years of the contract.
Workers at Warrior Met Coal in Brookwood, Alabama have been on strike since April 1, 2021. The grievances involve higher wages, better shift scheduling and additional time off. In 2015 the mine went into bankruptcy and was taken over by the vulture fund Blackrock. The mine produces coal for the manufacture of steel. The bankruptcy saw workers taking hits on wages, and the end of pensions. Workers kept their heads down and took the hit at the time so that their jobs would still exist. Having saved the company and the mine, workers felt they were owed more. Having settled into a long strike, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) is working towards a defeat. The company recently got a court order to clear out the mining entrances to make it easier for scabs to enter and leave. There have been three vehicular assaults against striking workers reported on the picket line which spurred anger of strikers creating further scuffles around the entrance of the mine. It seems the strike will last into the coming year.
For most of the past forty years in the US it has been highly unusual for any union contract to be anything more than a list of concessions for workers. With some of these strikes employers have had to give a few crumbs back. Even in the present epoch the capitalist class still needs its union machinery. The US has one of the oldest labor movements in the industrialized world and yet workers still have to fight to get one day off a week and this isn't due to a lack of willingness to fight.
It is heartening to see workers starting to fight back again after years of surrender. Throughout the imperialist epoch unions have become more and more inseparable from the capitalist power structures they bargain within. As the crisis of capitalism advances the avenue for workers to win any concessions or reforms from the capitalist class narrows, but doesn't preclude the occasional reform or concession granted to workers if it becomes necessary for the wellbeing of the capitalist system to do so. No minor victory in the everyday struggles of wage workers will lead to revolution. The structures of capitalist power, in the form of unions, become of greater use to capitalists during periods of time when society is disrupted and capitalist crisis sharpens and imperialist conflicts intensify.
If workers start making the break from these capitalist labor management structures, strive for their own conscious political autonomy and don’t give up on using the strike as a weapon they might reestablish themselves as the social force that they are capable of becoming. As capitalists must accumulate capital they must also create the sort of conditions that allow the exploitation of workers to continue. Capitalist order is transitory enough that even the conditions that give capitalists the upper hand must eventually change.
With the consistent intervention of those scattered fledgling revolutionary forces, workers can make a start in reclaiming their historically discovered organizational forms: workers’ assemblies, strike committees and workers’ councils. The sheer size and scope of the forces of state repression, spy agencies, armies, and police, reflect the revolutionary potential of the class.
ASm (Internationalist Workers’ Group)
Previous articles: Report from the Kellogg's Workers Strike and USA: "Striketober", An Unprecedented Wave of Strikes
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(1) BLS. Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey, 2021. https://www.bls.gov/web/empsit/cpseea38.htm
(2) Sainato, Micheal. John Deere workers strike over poor treatment. Guardian, Oct 14, 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/oct/14/john-deere-workers-strike-contract-union