2021 was a pretty tough year in a lot of ways. As the pandemic took full effect, devastating job losses hit many workers hard, and the critical role of health and safety protections were never more clear than during this terrible pandemic. But it was also probably most important year for U.S. labour in decades. From Striketober to the Great Resignation to unprecedented union votes, workers across the states have been waking up and realizing that they have a lot more power than they thought they had.
At the same time we see that more Americans view unions and the labour movement more favourably. A survey last fall by Gallup found that 68% of respondents have a positive view of unions — up from only 48% in 2009. Tomorrow’s workforce is an even bigger supporter of unions, with 77% of individuals 34 years and younger supporting unions.
While unionization, higher wages, and labour rights have been getting incrementally more popular over the last decade, the pandemic itself really kicked everything into gear. We very quickly learned which jobs are most essential to our survival, as did the people doing those jobs. With businesses closing, many low wage workers were able to put their efforts into going back to school, learning new skills, or getting better jobs, an opportunity they may not have had previously. This left business owners who didn't want to pay workers a living wage or provide benefits in something of a bind, and many restaurants and retail stores were forced to raise their wages in order to appeal to workers.
Throughout the year — and so much so in October that it was called "Striketober" — workers across the nation went on strike to demand better wages and benefits. The US Labor Department reports there were 13 strikes involving more than 1,000 employees, which is not particularly impressive from a historic perspective (there were between 145 and 437 of them of them every year pre-Reagan). Cornell University's Strike Tracker, however, counted 365 strikes this year in total, along with 656 labour protests — so while the strikes may not have been particularly large, they were many. And they were influential.
The key characteristic about this year of labour action was not necessarily the quantity, but the quality, or rather the length and breadth of the strike actions in 2021. In major industries such as food service, education, industrial production, food production, and mining, tens of thousands of workers embarked on industrial action. Prestigious educational institutions saw some of the largest strikes.
Another critical aspect of the strikes were the similar conditions which pushed the workers onto the picket line. Workers at John Deere, Kellogg, and Frito Lay all went on strike—and won their demands—over proposed extensions to two-tier pay and benefit systems, an insidious tactic to divide workers and give newer workers less.
Workers at Frito-Lay went on strike for 19 days, eventually securing a wage hike of four percent over the next two years and a guaranteed one day off a week. Kellogg's workers went on strike for 11 weeks and gained a new contract that allowed workers to keep their current health benefits and also get dental and vision benefits, cost-of-living raises, and, despite keeping the two-tier system that confers more benefits to those who have been there longer, made it easier for new workers to enter that tier. Striking Nabisco workers secured "$5,000 (before taxes) lump-sum bonuses for all workers, a 2.25 percent wage increase, along with 60-cent hourly raises for the next four years (the term of the contract), an increase in short-term disability pay, and an increase in the company's 401(k) contributions, moving from a 25 percent match to a 50 percent match."
Ten thousand John Deere workers went on strike in October and got a raise of 10 percent and "kept the 5% raises that were in the third and fifth years of the six-year deal and 3% lump sum payments in the second, fourth and sixth years of the deal [...] an $8,500 ratification bonus, preserve a pension option for new employees, make workers eligible for health insurance sooner and maintain their no-premium health insurance coverage."
Healthcare workers at Mercy Hospital in Buffalo went on strike for five weeks before securing a new contract with higher wages and promises to increase staffing in order to lighten the load of overworked staff. Back in July, over 1,500 nursing home workers in Pennsylvania won historic pay raises less than 24 hours before the one-day strike was set to take place. These raises mean more than pay. For an industry whose low pay has played a huge role in it’s understaffing crisis, better pay is equal to a more safe and stable work environment for nursing home and home care workers.
Thirty-two thousand Kaiser Permanente workers also nearly went on strike before ratifying a new contract which included annual wage increases, allowed them to keep their health benefits and added new staffing language to protect workers and patients. The company withdrew its proposal for a two-tier pay system that would pay new hires a third less than current workers.
The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) threatened to go on strike, but instead came to a new agreement giving workers at least 10 hours between shifts and a 54-hour weekend.
Workers in fast food and retail organized walk outs and strikes over long hours, low pay and measly benefits. From McDonald’s and Wendy’s, to Walmart and Family Dollar, thousands of workers in the industries that provide essentials to millions everyday demanded better and won.
Workers at United Metro Energy in Brooklyn, New York have been on strike since April. Despite several retaliatory firings, the workers have held out demanding better pay, expanded healthcare coverage, and a grievance process for disciplinary actions and firings.
In Alabama, more than 1,100 miners at the Warrior Met Coal Mines have been on strike for over eight months demanding an end to pay cuts, more time off and affordable health insurance. The workers have held strong despite multiple vehicular attacks on the picket lines and the company’s attempts to stop their picket.
The number of organized workers in US is low. A year ago less than 11% of workers were represented by unions, roughly half the number of organized workers on the job in 1983.
But there were some pretty important union votes last year. In the most high-profile win, two Starbucks stores in Buffalo, New York became the first Starbucks locations in the country to vote to unionize, despite an egregious anti-union campaign. Union drives are underway in several more states, with an election filing just recently announced in Tennessee. Other coffee and fast food shops are expected to follow.
After filing for a union back in May, 17,000 higher education workers at the University of California voted to strike for recognition. Two weeks later, the University agreed. The new union, Student Researchers United, is the largest new union formed in the country in recent decades.
2021 also marked a record-breaking year for journalists getting organized across the country. The NewsGuild, the largest union representing journalists, broke its annual organizing record with 1,542 journalists across 26 workplaces joining the union.
Without a doubt, Amazon was this year’s biggest labour boogeyman. Throughout the pandemic, the trillion-dollar company has become synonymous with unfair labour practices and inhumane working conditions, all while making record-breaking profits. With nearly one million workers, Amazon is on track to become the largest employer in the US. In 2021, the megacorporation faced a level of worker organizing and resistance that it’s never seen before.
In one of the biggest labour stories of the year, workers at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama struggled through months of captive-audience meetings, threats, and surveillance to hold an election with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on whether to form a union with the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Workers Union (RWDSU). Amazon trampled on labour law to nix any chance of a union win and succeeded in April. Some saw this defeat as an indicator that unionizing the world’s second largest retailer was impossible. But workers have continued to push forward union drives and organizing efforts from Bessemer to New York and Chicago.
Over the summer, the NLRB upheld the RWDSU’s charge that Amazon illegally intervened in the election. And last December, a regional director formally granted workers a second shot at voting. Workers at other plants, like the one in Staten Island, are now pushing for a union vote themselves.
Another victory at the NLRB arrived on December 23rd, when Amazon settled with the board to allow its warehouse employees to unionize more easily.
In another memorable update, one of the largest unions in the country threw down the gauntlet in the fight to unionize Amazon. The 1.4 million member-strong International Brotherhood of Teamsters voted to approve a resolution calling for an all-encompassing campaign to mobilize and organize Amazon workers across the US. The Teamsters, which is the largest union representing workers in the shipping and logistics industries, has fought for decades to set better standards on pay, benefits and workplace protections for workers like those at Amazon.
In the spirit of working together, on Black Friday, Amazon workers in over 20 countries coordinated the biggest day of strikes and actions against the company ever. The Make Amazon Pay coalition, made up of 70 unions, environmentalist groups, non-profit watchdogs and grassroots organizations, planned the actions spanning four continents.
Right before Christmas, workers staged a walk out at two Chicago delivery stations to demand better pay and working conditions.
What certainly will help, is that a new administration with intentions to improve working conditions and labour rights began its work a year ago. We have seen dramatic change in the makeup of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) under President Biden. Also, under Biden, long-time labour advocates entered the President’s Cabinet
As more and more states enact minimum wage legislation, raising the legal minimum to $15, federal workers also saw an executive order creating a $15 minimum wage by March 2022.
Escalation in 2022
While the numbers of strikes we have seen during 2021 are impressive, they don’t come anywhere near earlier strike waves. Nor have they resulted in real growth in existing unions, as the strike waves of the 1930s did. We have to celebrate successes, but it will take a lot more success — and organizing — to build a movement. Facing year 3 of the coronavirus pandemic, historic income inequality and decades of stagnant wages, we can expect this labour revival to escalate in 2022. A data analysis by Bloomberg Law found that 185 large union contracts, representing more than 1.3 million workers, are set to expire in the new year. On top of the expirations are first contracts that have yet to be ratified, particularly for recently-unionized workers in media outlets and museums across the country.
It’s safe to say that the dire material conditions facing workers in the US have awoken the sleeping giant of a militant labour movement and 2021 has proven that the workers united are not ready to be defeated.