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Striking in the Tight Labor Market

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The John Deere strike, in which the workers rejected the contract negotiated by their own union leaders, should help us understand the point that workers presently have power in the labor market that they have not had in decades. How long it lasts, I don’t know. But it is a remarkable moment.

Shortly before midnight on Wednesday, production workers at a John Deere facility in Waterloo, Iowa, started shutting down the plant, quenching the furnaces in the foundry. The plant was already mostly empty, with Deere telling overnight workers to stay home. Three days earlier, union members at United Auto Workers meetings in Iowa, Illinois, and Kansas had voted overwhelmingly to reject a proposed contract that gave subinflation raises and eliminated pensions for all new hires. The rejection came as a surprise to both the union leadership and the company; even some of the workers who had voted no and authorized a strike were surprised that it was actually happening. The 10,000 workers who walked off the job are striking Deere for the first time in 35 years. “Just confirmed Waterloo has their picket signs,” one worker said before the strike began. “Shit’s about to get real.”

They join 2,000 hospital workers striking in Buffalo, New York; 1,400 production workers for Kellogg’s in four states; 450 steelworkers in Huntington, West Virginia; and a one-day walk-off of 2,000 telecommunications workers in California, all since October 1. One thousand Alabama coal miners, 700 nurses in Massachusetts, 400 whiskeymakers in Kentucky, and 200 bus drivers in Reno, Nevada, were already on strike, in addition to recently settled strikes by 2,000 carpenters in Washington, 600 Frito-Lay workers in Kansas, and 1,000 Nabisco factory workers at five plants across the country.

And there are tens of thousands of workers waiting in the wings, with 37,000 health care workers at Kaiser in Oregon, California, and Hawaii who have either authorized a strike or are about to as well as several large unions of academic workers also readying to strike. More than 60,000 film and television workers were prepared to walk out, with 90 percent of International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees members voting 98 percent to strike, before a tentative contract was reached on Saturday. IATSE members will vote on whether to ratify that contract this week.

This strike wave isn’t the 1940s, when 1 in 10 U.S. workers went on strike in the space of a year. But it isn’t the labor lull of the 2010s, either, when large strike activity in the private sector fell toward zero. Today, workers are increasingly militant — that is, unwilling to accept bad terms of employment — but they are not particularly organized. With union density at a historical nadir, the unions are playing an inspirational role, but they aren’t the only source of the action. What we’re seeing now is strike activity beginning to rise from a decadeslong trough as the “essential” worker — a new category of worker born of the coronavirus pandemic — challenges the boss to make good on that designation.

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