The recent flurry of strikes taking place in the US, dubbed “Striketober” is perhaps not yet a wave, but definitely a noticeable stream.
Of about 190 strikes up to 22 October, 40 took place in October.
So far the number of strikers is smaller than the almost half a million in 2018 (and almost as many in 2019), which were the highest figures since 1986. In 2020 there were many small strikes and workplace actions, often over safety in the pandemic, but striker-numbers were way down.
There are some struggles potentially in the offing which could push the whole thing onto a bigger scale. Disputes have been brewing among 35,000 Kaiser healthworkers in the Western US and among 60,000 film and TV technical and craft employees – though the latter are now voting on a somewhat improved deal on pay and hours. The big workforce actually on strike now is 10,000 United Auto Workers (UAW) members producing farm machinery for John Deere, at 14 plants in Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Colorado and Georgia. The company did well during the pandemic and made almost $5bn profit in the first three quarters of 2021. Its CEO got a 160% pay rise. However, having introduced a two-tier workforce in the 90s, it now wants to create a third tier with worse pensions. The workers want the second tier abolished and a decent pay rise.
The Striketober struggles seem to involve a complicated mix of defensive – sometimes very severely defensive – and offensive demands.
There are also 1,500 workers producing food for Kelloggs on strike, again against a two-tier workforce. And many smaller strikes involving low-thousands or hundreds of workers.
In 2018 and 2019, the big force driving higher strike figures was school teachers. That was also significant: because in many parts of the US public-sector strikes are on paper illegal; because they were largely driven from below by rank-and-file teachers; and because many of them happened in Republican-dominated areas in the South without much recent history of militancy. They won important victories, on pay but also school funding.
In contrast the bulk of the current strikes are in the private sector, even though, as in the UK, it is much less unionised than the public sector – only 6%, vs over a third.
Many US public-sector unions have focused on negotiating conditions for returning to work, with teachers taking a lead. However, many private sector workers never stopped working, a point made by many now on strike.
The wider background is a tight labour market, with the economy rebounding after the impact of the pandemic, and a shortage of workers. There is a very high “quit” rate: in August a record 4.3m workers quit their jobs, about 2.9% of the US workforce. A Gallup poll found 48% of workers actively searching or watching for job opportunities.
At the same time many workers’ terms and conditions are under attack and there is growing inequality. There is simultaneously a surplus of jobs but a dearth of good jobs.
My impression is that although the US labour movement is weaker than ours overall, there are more pockets of strong organisation, militancy and rank-and-file organising than in the UK. The 2018-19 teachers’ strikes are one example. Another is the recent strike of carpenters in Washington State, driven by the rank and file in conflict with their union leadership.
In many respects, however, US unions have over decades allowed a social regression even worse than here. If this strike movement develops further, the leadership of most unions will of course be an obstructive factor.
There are significant “reform” movements rising in two very important unions, the UAW whose members are fighting at John Deere, and the Teamsters, one of the US’s biggest private sector unions, which is making new attempts to organise at Amazon. If the opposition wins in the Teamsters, powerful but in many ways very conservative and corrupt, that is potentially a big deal.
American unions do face anti-union laws, though in general not as tight as ours. They face even more aggressively anti-union employers. The House of Representatives has passed a relatively strong law to facilitate union organising, the Protecting the Right to Organise or PRO Act, but it is being blocked in the Senate by the Republican threat of filibuster.
No doubt passing the PRO Act would help, but particularly in this situation, the stronger workers’ mobilisations in any case the more likely that is.
Joe Biden has long positioned himself as strongly pro-union – much more than Keir Starmer. But his statement on the John Deere strike was just: “They have a right to strike… I’m not getting into the negotiation.”