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The factors driving 'Striketober'

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We want to turn to another issue that's having a tremendous effect on people's lives. We're talking here about Americans' changing relationship with their workplaces. One measure of that changing relationship is the number of workers who went on strike last month alone. Roughly 25,000 workers walked off their jobs, demanding better pay and benefits, improved workplace protections and often something less tangible, which we'll call dignity. And that doesn't count the tens of thousands who threatened strikes, including health care workers with Kaiser Permanente, which avoided a major strike on Saturday after reaching a tentative agreement with the unions.

It's all been dubbed Striketober. And it's come amid a pandemic that's seen more than 34 million Americans quit their jobs. And at a time where nearly 2 in 3 Americans say they approve of labor unions, just 1 in 10 workers actually belongs to one.

Professor Jasmine Kerrissey focuses her research on labor movements and inequality. And she told us that there are three major themes playing out right now.

JASMINE KERRISSEY: One is about two-tier systems, where new hires are brought in at lower pay or with worse health care or retirement packages. A second issue is around control over time and pace. And a third issue is around wages, especially in light of sort of historic CEO compensation.

MARTIN: What role do you think the labor shortage is playing in all of this? Do you think that that's having some effect on the strength of these strikes?

KERRISSEY: Yes, I do think they're related. So the pandemic exposed and amplified a real host of worker grievances. And that led to two dynamics. One is this great resignation, where people are walking away from their jobs. And the other is the strikes. And they have similar underlying causes, which is that workers want better options, and they don't want to continue with the status quo.

MARTIN: Well, you know, that raises an important question, which is that people can go on strike, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they will be successful. So have the workers actually gotten what they were hoping for?

KERRISSEY: So it's too early to say about these October strikes. Many of them are ongoing or have contracts that are going to be under ratification in the next week or two. But right before the pandemic, there started to be an uptick in strike activity, too. And those strikes were very successful. So it was the big teachers' strikes of 2018 and 2019, which had a few hundred thousand workers each year, and then also the General Motors strike and the Stop & Shop strike.

But strikes happen in waves. And we have some data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics from 1916 to 1936. And it has outcomes of strikes. And we can see that workers, when they're winning, subsequently, more workers go on strike.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, we - as we mentioned at the beginning of our conversation, just 1 in 10 workers belongs to a union right now. And I think people will remember that the most sort of high-profile unionization effort that we've seen in recent years at Amazon was not successful. Sort of when you weigh all of the factors together, what impact do you think this might have on these - basically, the vast swath of the economy where there is no union representation at the moment?

KERRISSEY: That's a great question. So in the 1920s, it seemed like the labor movement was dying. Unionization was also at an all-time low. And just years later, there was a big strike wave. And part of that strike wave in the '30s was about forming unions.

So in 1936, for example, over half of the strikes involved forming unions and union organization. And the Bureau of Labor Statistics also reports that in that year, 75% of strikes were successful or partially successful on the behalf of unions. So there is, you know, sort of precedent that unorganized workers could become union members. Of course, the road is hard.

MARTIN: That was Jasmine Kerrissey. She is a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she researches labor movements. Professor Kerrissey, thank you so much for sharing your expertise with us.

KERRISSEY: Thanks for inviting me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.