Workers, from union to gig, reject rules that bosses try to reimpose

November 9, 2021

From the November-December 2021 issue of News & Letters

by Bob McGuire and Buddy Bell

Workers in the U.S. have made 2021 a year that ought to panic giant corporations and small store owners alike. The wave of strikes and other job actions this fall have exploded and not just in numbers. They have broadened to include coal miners and heavy production workers at John Deere and workers in numerous industries drafted to serve on the front lines of the pandemic like truck drivers and packaging workers, including at Amazon, medical workers like those at Kaiser, and food workers including at Nabisco and Kellogg’s.

WORKERS SAY ‘NO!’ TO LOW WAGES, LONG HOURS

Kellogg’s picketers on Oct. 9, 2021, at Lancaster, Penn., Kellogg’s Plant. They are with BCTGM Local 374. Photo: Juharr

Unorganized retail clerks and restaurant workers who suffered either layoffs or longer hours while dealing with potential COVID-19 spreaders for nearly two years have been voting with their feet against the reimposition of pre-pandemic wages and job conditions. At Dollar General, workers have also resumed unionization efforts.

The breadth of this strike wave bears comparison to the sit-down strikes of the late 1930s, when workers in auto, meatpacking and dozens of other industries were joined by restaurant and dime store workers to form industrial unions. Their ability to hold their ground—occupying their workplaces in the face of corporate private armies, police and National Guard—created the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations).

The efforts of those strikers eventually moved union membership in non-government jobs from 13% in 1935 to 33% in 1953. But this month’s wave of strikes has spread despite current union membership having plummeted to just 6.3% of the private work force. Workers intent on recovering what companies stole from them during pandemic conditions are confronting bosses determined to extract even more value from their labor.

The pandemic depression amplified the tendency toward the decline in the rate of profit that has prompted capitalists to offshoring jobs and unionbusting to squeeze from workers themselves the capital for expansion of capital and the survival of the system itself. Capitalism must expand to survive, even with massive corporate profits, reflected in record valuations on Wall Street.

‘LAZY WORKERS’

Corporations that take full advantage of supply and demand when unemployment is high cry foul when workers take advantage of labor shortages. We have heard from bosses for months that “Nobody wants to work anymore.” To begin with, they can’t persuade the 150,000 in the 18-64 working age population who have died of COVID-19 to return to their jobs.

Donald Trump last year demanded that meatpacking plants face no liability for the death of workers on the line, even if they had no protective equipment. The result: U.S. counties with a packing plant processing beef, pork, or chicken had a death rate from COVID-19 as high as four times that of adjoining counties with no such death-dealing center, and both COVID-19 cases and deaths have just been revealed to be at least triple the figures the five large companies had reported. Joe Biden’s USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack—who, in the same office under Barack Obama, never met a slaughter line speedup he didn’t like—has made no effort to rescind the Trump-era rule.

Emergency federal unemployment checks, which were issued more to stimulate the economy in a pandemic depression than to enable jobless workers to survive, were seen by bosses as discouraging workers from taking low-wage jobs that in the past the bosses had been able to fill. The obvious capitalist solution in states like Texas, Missouri and Tennessee was to end the flow of those emergency checks, even though they represented no cost to the state budgets, to force “lazy” workers back into harness.

Their clever plot to force unemployed workers back at bayonet point had been tried before. In one case, as long ago as the 14th Century, the Black Death had killed almost half the serfs and poor townspeople while the nobility traveled to safer zones. The surviving serfs refused to return to the feudal lords’ estates without conditions of greater freedom and much higher pay. Parliament then enacted a law forcing “lazy” serfs back to the fields on pain of imprisonment.

Mine workers on strike in Brookwood, Alabama, against Warrior Met mine continue picketing, as they have done since April 2021. Photo: United Mine Workers U.S.A.

But Parliament couldn’t stop the serfs’ demands back then any more than reactionary state legislatures have succeeded in forcing workers back under the old rules and low pay. Workers in great numbers have walked off non-union jobs with below subsistence wages and intolerable conditions.

The movement among low-wage workers in fast food and nursing homes, #FightFor15, has long exposed the cruelty of the national minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, $2.13 for any called tipped workers. But 12 years after that movement for a living wage began, 2021 has proved that even $15 an hour, which so many workers in “good-paying union jobs” barely make, is now a poverty wage.

NEW UNIONS BEING CREATED

Unorganized workers are creating new unions—literally from California at the Port of Los Angeles to the New York Staten Island monster facility of Amazon. Port truckers who voted for a union were illegally fired, but reinstated by court order. Some of the drivers were steered into leasing contracts that lock them into working for one employer who makes them work for free while waiting in long lines to pick up shipments. Truck driver Walter Martinez gave an impromptu interview to CBS: “I’ve got friends right now that were in line from nine o’clock in the morning and they can’t pull the load yet. The people inside, they get paid by the hour, but not the drivers.”

Warehouse workers at the Staten Island Amazon crossed a threshold of signature cards on Oct. 25, so that they will trigger a union election. “This is monumental for the workers. This is proof you can stand up, fight back and organize your workplace,” said former Amazon employee Chris Smalls, whom Amazon fired in March 2020, immediately after he led a walkout over the lack of COVID-19 protections in their workplace.

The current organizing drive at Dollar General, undaunted by the company’s history of closing stores that voted union, proves how forcefully workers are confronting the unilateral power of their bosses.

In the gig economy, Uber and Lyft drivers have not given up their three-year fight to form a union. Professional grocery shoppers who work for the app Instacart logged off of the app all day on Oct. 16 to call attention to their plight. One worker in Massachusetts told The Guardian: “It’s like a sweat factory. They’ll put 100 in, fire 10, and put 100 more back in. It’s just not OK. We’re human beings and we deserve to be treated like such.”

STRIKERS’ DEMANDS

Most of these strikers across multiple industries are demanding a return to more favorable conditions from before the pandemic, or even earlier. Coal miners have remained on strike against Warrior Met in Alabama since April to retrieve over $6.00/hour in concessions they had agreed to when the company was in bankruptcy in 2015.

While the Alabama Highway Patrol has been acting as corporate security guards to usher scabs through picket lines, the joint forces of company and state found a county judge to disregard the law further by banning picket lines altogether. That is what the judge’s exclusion of pickets from within 300 yards (the length of three football fields) of any Warrior facility would mean, if upheld.

John Deere workers have stayed on strike after overwhelmingly rejecting on Oct. 14, by a 90% to 10% margin, the first offer that Deere negotiated with the UAW Bargaining Committee. Deere retains elements of the old piece-rate system, which capitalists always hope will force workers to increase production. Workers say it’s an exaggeration for Deere to claim that with piece-rate bonuses the average wage is $60,000, meager as that would be for an icon of heavy manufacturing.

On Nov. 2 workers rejected Deere’s second offer despite the company doubling its promised raise at contract signing to 10% and withdrawing its scheme to engineer the eventual demise of the company pension system by excluding future workers from it. Deere then called that rejected offer their “last and best offer”—an ominous announcement often heard during the Reagan retrogression as a threat to hire scabs called “permanent replacements.” The UAW negotiating committee’s decision to present the first company offer with a raise half as large as its second offer just added to workers’ distrust of their union representatives.

Kellogg’s made an effort to undermine public support for strikers on the picket lines by stating that the average worker at Kellogg’s made $120,000. But that was less a claim than a confession: A worker clearing $120,000 would have to be clocking in for close to 16 hours a day, all seven days of the week. Strikers confirmed that shifts like that were what they had all experienced as cereal production leaped to meet increased demand. Strikers are demanding wages and hours that will allow them to reintroduce themselves to family members.

BOSSES DEMAND GIVEBACKS

Even with workers on strike across the nation and in industry after industry for improved benefits and to restore what they had lost, they still confront corporate demands for gutting healthcare and pensions and even for lowering wages. This after workers had been forced into high-risk situations threatening their health.

Nabisco workers struck against attempts to extend the emergency practice of deploying workers at all hours of the week as demand for Oreos ballooned, but to now pay those shifts at straight time. Despite the energy of strikers at all U.S. locations, they felt forced to settle for a contract with those straight time weekend shifts imposed, but on future hires only.

On the front lines of the war against COVID-19, New York hospital workers at the League of Voluntary Hospitals and Homes signed a new contract. In saving the pension system, they had to accept the requirement of a year or longer service to qualify for a full pension. In California, nurses and other healthcare workers at Kaiser Permanente hospitals have voted to authorize a strike and stood firm against the even more grasping demands of the healthcare giant. Kaiser has chosen this moment, when the need for nurses vastly exceeds their availability, to attempt to institute a two-tier system which would force sharply lower wages and conditions on nurses yet to be hired.

Observers who damned this strike wave with faint praise as “Striketober” will need to come up with a clever new name because in November steelworkers at ArcelorMittal in Shelby, Ohio, join the ranks of strikers at dozens of fronts of open battle between labor and capital. One suggestion for a new label: “The Fall of Capitalism.” The extraordinary efforts of capitalists to get workers back to the job on company terms, aided by private armies and public resources, show in their desperation that the capitalist system is no more invincible than the 14th-Century feudal system that crumbled quickly when even beheadings could not compel the serfs to obey the old rules.

The very act of striking proves the centrality of labor. Workers observe that no value is added without their working activity. In the midst of pandemic, workers have heard capitalism speak loud and clear: We are fine with working you to death or putting you in the way of a deadly disease. And that is how workers have always been treated.

No matter how often Wall Street sets records for the mass of profits, capitalism is always a broken system because of its fetishism of commodities, where things are treated as people and people are treated as things. Striking workers don’t regard this condition as an inherent fact of life. Strikes declare that it is changeable. In so doing they are proving that capitalism must be abolished and humanity saved by reestablishing society with the workers themselves in charge of the labor process.

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