THE US is experiencing a surge of strikes – 10,000 John Deere workers went on strike in October, and so did 1,400 Kellogg workers, and now 35,000 Kaiser Permanente healthcare workers are threatening to walk out.
Workplace experts generally point to two reasons for this surge. First, after working so hard and often risking their lives during the pandemic, many workers believe that they deserve better pay and treatment. Second, American workers — especially long-underappreciated essential and low-wage workers — are suddenly feeling empowered because of today’s labour shortage.
These factors have certainly helped cause the wave of walkouts, but there’s another huge but often overlooked factor behind the strikes: It takes two to tango.
The companies that have faced strikes have often been stubborn and stingy – they’re part of a backward-looking group that is clinging to corporate America’s philosophy of recent decades: Squeeze your workers and battle your unions. They’re acting as if it’s still the 1980s when President Reagan’s move to crush the air traffic controllers’ union set off an era of anti-union attacks.
The corporations facing strikes don’t seem to realise that times are changing, with a labour shortage giving employees more bargaining power and with the public feeling greater sympathy for underpaid front-line workers as income inequality soars.
Neither Deere nor Kellogg seems to have gotten that message, nor did Nabisco, which recently faced a six-week strike. Nor has Kaiser Permanente, which has proposed a two-tier contract in which future nurses and other healthcare workers would be paid 26% to 39% less than current workers. Belinda Redding, a Kaiser Permanente nurse in Woodland Hills, feels insulted by that contract offer; after the nurses put their lives on the line day after day for months, Kaiser has offered a raise of just 1% a year for three years.
‘It feels like almost a slap in the face,’ Redding told me. Kaiser Permanente, a nonprofit organisation with $45 billion in reserves, maintains that its compensation levels are 27% higher than ‘the average market wage’ and are unsustainable.
Many companies, however, do know it’s time to treat workers better. Bank of America has raised its minimum pay to $21 an hour, while Costco has adopted a $17 minimum. CVS says it will raise its minimum to $15 by next July, and Amazon is raising its average starting wage to $18 an hour.
But some corporations view things differently, seeing it as a time for rollbacks and takebacks. Even though John Deere has forecast record profits of at least $5.7 billion this year, more than double last year’s level, and even though its CEO’s pay jumped 160% last year and it raised shareholder dividends by 17%, Deere originally offered its workers a basic raise of 12% over six years, which workers said wouldn’t begin to keep up with inflation. Chris Laursen, a painter at Deere’s farm equipment factory in Ottumwa, Iowa, earns $20.82 an hour after 19 years and complained that Deere first offered him a raise of just $1 in the contract’s first year.
The strikers were also angry that Deere proposed a new, lower compensation tier that would eliminate pensions for new hires. Deere and the UAW union leadership reached a tentative deal on a better contract offer on October 30, but union members rejected that offer on Tuesday and remain on strike.
Kellogg employees complain of working 30 days straight during the pandemic and frequent 12-hour and 16-hour shifts. After a gruelling year, many were upset that Kellogg demanded a two-tier compensation system that would pay new hires $13 an hour less than current workers – the company says they average $35.26 an hour – and give them fewer benefits.
If today’s strikes have a specific cause, it’s management’s demand for two-tier pay systems that will mean lower wages and reduced benefits – indeed worse living standards – for future workers. To many corporations, demanding two pay tiers makes sense: It placates current employees by maintaining their pay and benefits, while reducing overall labour costs by paying future workers less. (Deere and Kellogg say they need a two-tier structure to cut costs and stay competitive.)
Of course, the reason corporate leaders love two-tier pay systems is that they undermine unions and divide workers. Two tiers foment tensions and make new employees angry at their unions for having agreed to management’s demands to pay new people less. And once established, two-tier systems are extremely hard to undo.
For unions, it may be tempting to trade away wages and benefits for future workers, who aren’t there to complain – yet. But there’s also rising resistance to corporate efforts to push down pay and living standards for the next generation. ‘These are our kids and grandkids. We don’t want a worse future for them,’ said Laursen, the Deere striker.
In taking firm stances on this issue and others, unions are setting an economic justice agenda. By doing that, along with a spate of high-profile strikes, unions have won higher public approval this year than at any time since 1965.
- On Monday, November. 8, the historic St Vincent Hospital nurses strike reached the eight-month mark, another sad milestone in their struggle against Dallas-based Tenet Healthcare, a for-profit corporation that has spent more than $100 million and engaged in a number of unfair labour practices to retaliate against the nurses for exercising their right to advocate for safer patient care.
The strike is the longest nurses strike in state history, and one of the longest of several strikes by workers across the nation, who are standing up to corporate greed and the devaluation of essential workers in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The strike has caught the attention of labour and social justice advocacy organisations from across the nation, after Tenet has pursued an aggressive campaign to undermine the nurses’ union rights, and to permanently replace the nurses, what some in the labour movement have called a ‘PATCO moment’, referring to efforts by the Reagan administration to replace air traffic controllers following their strike in the early 1980s.
In the St Vincent nurses case, the effort has already had a dramatically negative impact on the care delivered to patients served by the hospital, as the nurses have received reports from numerous staff members inside the hospital as well as recent patients, of serious medical lapses and errors by ill-prepared and/or incompetent replacements, including the nurses own experiences encountering and providing care to compromised indigent patients being dumped outside the hospital’s emergency department by Tenet.
‘After eight long months, sadly, it is clear that Tenet was never interested in a good faith effort to negotiate an equitable contract, but their ultimate goal is to destroy our union to prevent us from exercising our legally protected right to protect our patients and our community.
‘We will not let that happen,’ said Marlena Pellegrino, RN, a longtime nurse at the hospital and co-chair of the nurses local bargaining unit of the Massachusetts Nurses Association.
‘Our nurses want nothing more than to be back at the bedside to provide our patients with the dignity and expert care they expect and deserve from this, their community hospital.
Unfortunately, Tenet has refused an agreement that would allow that to happen, choosing instead to spend millions to keep us out, to pursue illegal practices to punish us for our advocacy. Tragically, it is our patients who are ultimately paying the price for these reprehensible practices.’
The strike by the St Vincent nurses, which began on March 8, followed more than 18 months of negotiations and advocacy by the nurses to convince their CEO Carolyn Jackson that conditions for patients were patently unsafe and needed to be improved to protect their patients and stem the mass exodus of nurses, after more than 100 nurses left the facility largely due to the deplorable working conditions.
The strike followed a year of great sacrifice and courageous service by the nurses during the pandemic, as they worked tirelessly to care for patients with inadequate staffing conditions and the required personal protective equipment (some nurses resorted to wearing trash bags after Tenet failed to provide appropriate protective gowns), resulting in hundreds of the nurses becoming infected with the virus themselves.
Back in August, after four days of negotiations, the nurses had agreed to staffing improvements negotiated throughout the strike and were ready to return to work to provide care, particularly during the current surge caused by the Delta variant, yet a final agreement was scuttled by Tenet when they demanded the nurses accept an unprecedented and punitive back to work provision that is not only unfair to nurses, but its replacement of highly skilled nurses with lesser qualified staff, would undermine all the patient safety gains the parties had negotiated.
The hospital’s proposal also called for the nurses to retract all the unfair labour practice charges, opening the door for Tenet to continue its efforts to retaliate against the striking nurses.
In October, Tenet declared an impasse in the negotiations and proceeded to implement their last offer for the replacement nurses inside the hospital.
The nurses maintain that Tenet’s attempt to declare an impasse implementing their last offer was illegal and made in bad faith as it is compromised by its inclusion of an illegal bonus for replacement nurses, and by one or more of the unfair labour practices involving their actions regarding the return of nurses to work.
As the strike continues, the nurses continue their effort to hold Tenet accountable for their actions and have filed a total of eleven unfair labour practices against the corporation for its actions prior to and throughout the strike including making unlawful threats against striking nurses, retaliation and discrimination towards striking nurses, promises of benefits to non-strikers, and bad faith bargaining tactics, all designed to break the strike and to remove MNA as the nurses’ bargaining agent.
The nurses are clear that any negotiated Return to Work Agreement must also include a negotiated resolution of any and all unfair labour practice charges the nurses have filed.
Steve Striffler, a professor of anthropology and director of the Labour Resource Centre at the University of Massachusetts Boston, commenting on Tenet’s refusal to grant nurses a return to their previous positions in a recent news report said, ‘It’s unheard of for two sides to come to an agreement, after a really contentious strike, and for then, the employer, to say, ‘No, we aren’t going to guarantee you can come back to the job you’ve been in.’