‘Strikes are contagious’: Wave of labor unrest signals crisis in tight job market
Netflix (NFLX). John Deere (DE). Hollywood. Even Starbucks (SBUX).
On Wednesday Netflix employees in Los Angeles walked off the job in support of the transgender community, in the wake of continued backlash over Dave Chappelle’s comedy special, “The Closer.” The streaming giant’s troubles underscore a big trend in the wake of COVID-19, which has led to people leaving their jobs for a variety of reasons.
As employers of all sizes grapple with an acute worker shortage amid what’s being called the pandemic era’s Great Resignation, it’s become increasingly clear that people with jobs aren’t all that happy, either. At an ever-lengthening list of workplaces around the country, workers this year have been getting loud about the state of wages, working hours and conditions.
From healthcare to entertainment, nearly 100,000 U.S. workers are either striking or preparing to strike in a bid to improve working conditions. New data signals that worker unrest is growing: a Cornell Labor Action Tracker shows that more than 180 strikes have been recorded this year, and over 24,000 workers have walked off the job this month.
This all plays out against a backdrop of an economy bouncing back from an economic shutdown during the pandemic. More than 10,000 John Deere workers went on strike Thursday, the first major walkout at the agricultural machinery giant in more than three decades.
“We have noticed a bit of an uptick in late September into early October, for example, we've already documented 39 strikes on the month of October,” Johnnie Kallas, a Ph.D. student at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, or ILR, who tracks labor actions across the country, said in an interview.
“Those numbers are already the largest of any month in 2021,” he added.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics, which records only large work stoppages, has documented 12 strikes involving 1,000 or more workers. That represents a big jump from when the pandemic started over 19 months ago.
“What will happen is you'll see more workers going on strike,” Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research and senior lecturer at Cornell school of industrial and labor relations, told Yahoo Finance.
“Each time there's a ripple effect with each one of those, if the John Deere strike isn’t settled, you're going to see another big group go out,” she said.
“If companies don't move, you're going to see this spread from one group to another. Strikes are contagious,” Bronfenbrenner added.
‘Take away our cost of living’
Thousands of other employers and workers have recently faced similar scenarios — including Kellogg’s (K) plant workers who are on strike, and Nabisco employees who recently ended their weeks-long walkout.
“They're trying to take away our cost of living,” Dan Osborn, BCTGM Local 50G president in Omaha, Nebraska, said to Yahoo Finance this week.
Among their complaints: Kellogg’s proposal of a two-tier benefits system under which, according to Osborn, will result in lower pay, time off and higher insurance premiums.
An 11th-hour deal was reached on Saturday, averting a strike of film and television crews that would have seen some 60,000 behind-the-scenes workers walk off their jobs and would have frozen productions in Hollywood and across the US.
But the bigger picture seems to be workers are exhausted from the pandemic and a tight labor market that’s resulted in burnout and frayed nerves. The problem is being exacerbated by supply chain issues, but is also giving them leverage to demand better working conditions and higher pay.
“The corporations are really taking advantage of this moment of crisis and exploiting it to their own gain at the expense of workers and the public,” Bronfenbrenner said.
“Workers are being asked to work harder, longer, and risk their lives. And, they were saying, ‘for what, what are we doing this for?’ They've had enough,” she added.
At Kellogg cereal plants in Michigan, Tennessee, Pennsylvania and Nebraska, 1,400 workers have been on strike since October 5th. But now over 100 members of the Building and Construction Trades Council union will return to work Tuesday at the Kellogg Co. cereal factory in Omaha, Nebraska, while the broader strike against the company continues.
“We agreed it’s best to honor their contracts with Kellogg. If they don’t they are at risk of losing their contracts and Kellogg’s using non-union trades labor,” Osborn told Yahoo in a statement.
But as the strike at Kellogg continues, the cereal maker is letting its side be heard through a video released last week.
"Our proposals have been grossly misrepresented by the Union in statements to their membership and to the media, and we want our employees to have all the information they need to make informed decisions for themselves and their families," said Kris Bahner, Kellogg Company spokesperson.
But six months from now, we might be having this conversation, ‘gosh, why is there no X available at Amazon (AMZN) or Walmart (WMT)?’Peter Klein, Baylor University business professor
Kellogg’s top priority is to get back to the negotiating table and reach a contract, so employees can get back to their jobs and their lives, she added.
"The union claims they're forced to work seven days a week and significant amounts of overtime. The fact is, in 2020 our cereal manufacturing employees worked an average of 52 to 56 hours per week," Bahner said.
Kellogg acknowledged that unplanned overtime is disruptive, and is proposing adding a fourth crew. However, the company said the union rejected such proposals.
Yet the company rejected as “completely false” a claim that it plans to move jobs to Mexico. Kellogg has "not proposed moving any cereal volume or jobs outside of the U.S. as part of the negotiations," the company said.
A shifting tide
The rise in workplace activism comes at a time when approval of labor unions is trending upwards, and the surplus of available jobs is giving leverage to workers who have been deemed “essential” throughout the pandemic.
A September Gallup poll shows American approval of unions hit its highest point since 1965, with 68% of Americans approving of labor unions.
Some of these strikes, including those at Mondelez (MDLZ) and Frito-Lay plants, owned by beverage and snack giant Pepsi (PEP) have reached their conclusion after the manufacturers came to terms with workers and their unions. Still, some are only ratcheting up leaving potential impacts to the consumer.
“Some of the work stoppages that we're seeing now, if there are manufacturing or very early stage industries right now that consumers may not notice,” Peter Klein, a professor at Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business, said in an interview.
“But six months from now, we might be having this conversation, ‘gosh, why is there no X available at Amazon (AMZN) or Walmart (WMT)?’” he added.
As for Kellogg, the company is implementing plans to mitigate supply disruptions, partly by using salaried and third-party resources to produce food. “It is too soon to know what, if any, impact the strike will have on supply,” said Bahner in a statement.
Yet the turmoil reflects a unique set of conditions — a labor shortage, growing demand and supply chain disruptions in the midst of a pandemic — that has given labor unions extra leverage, and food manufacturers a greater incentive to meet their demands.
“Workers don't want to strike. When they strike they don't get paid. They're striking because nothing else has worked,” Bronfenbrenner said. “This is not a decision workers take lightly.”
Meanwhile, the labor movement has spurred up support from the White House when President Biden made a public statement supporting the Amazon union drive in Alabama. He has also made calls to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, a move that interests labor leaders.
Klein believes employers and employees should be able to work “these things out” amongst each other.
“However they see fit through negotiation or bargaining, workers certainly have the right to withhold their labor from the market if they decide that working conditions are unsuitable or unfair,” he said.
However, “by token, employers have the right to terminate workers, if they decide that the work stoppages are too disruptive to their business, I think the government should stay out of it and let companies and workers sort of figure this out.
Clarification: Cornell's data shows that more than 180 strikes have been recorded this year, and over 24,000 workers have walked off the job this month.
Dani Romero is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter: @daniromerotv
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