Widespread Discontent Drove Labor’s Advances in the Private Sector in 2021

2021 was a year that saw the opening of new fronts for the United States labor movement. Despite being widely disempowered and embattled, U.S. workers have taken on new responsibilities as union organizers. Both new pressures and old antagonisms are the reasons that labor militancy has exploded. The unique stressors of the COVID-19 pandemic further destabilized already-fractious arrangements — the grievances of the U.S. working class were mounting long before March 2020, a function of the decades of stagnation and austerity that have been imposed by concentrated private power.

Waves of protests and resignations signaled widespread disenchantment with the exploitative and authoritarian world of work, in a year that was regularly punctuated by organized action: 2021 saw groundbreaking union drives at Amazon and Starbucks, repeated assertions of power by health care workers, prolonged fights at John Deere and Warrior Met Coal, and strikes at Kellogg’s, Nabisco, Frito-Lay and many more. Film and television industry employees, carpenters, teachers, telecom workers, graduate students, video game developers, aerospace engineers — 2021 was remarkable for the diversity of sectors in which the stirrings of collective action either reawakened or arose for the first time.

However, progresses remain tentative. It’s true that this year’s labor struggles played out across an unusually broad array of industries, but this variety belied the comparatively small scope of the 2021 “strike wave,” as it was deemed by many. The number of workers participating in collective action was lower than the highs of recent decades. the number of new union election filings. Recalcitrant energies continue to build, but they are still not organized, structured, or channeled by a labor organization whose membership rates are long-established. precipitous decline.

The current juncture is a contradiction in terms: The U.S. labor market is both severely constrained as well as newly revitalized. Unions are wracked with internal tensionEmployees have been able to leverage new resources and shoulder new burdens, while at the same time, they have extended solidarity. Decades of wage stagnation, incapacity (or complacent) or outright corrupt) labor institutions have produced the conditions for rupture. The potential of such a resurgence remains unrealized — but 2021 offered conspicuous indications that this potential, critically, is being rekindled.

Essential Work for Low-Living Pay

The American workplace has been drastically affected by the pandemic. COVID has been described as a crucible that fosters rising labor antagonism. While this is true in many ways, the current conditions are deeper. The isolating first months of the pandemic limited collective activity of all kinds, with strike rates slowing accordingly — though workers still engaged in individual walkouts and similar reactive gestures (up to 1,200 by one count), often in response to safety concerns. These include acts of protest in the first year of the pandemic — both coordinated strikes and stochastic non-union actions — foreshadowed the demonstrations of discontent that were still to come.

Since the onset COVID-19 corporate profits have attained record heights. Other than that, a 70 percent increase in billionaire fortunesYou can also find out more about a sustained trend of vast pay disparitiesPrevalence conditions have had a way to emphasize the grossly distended inequality of the modern Gilded Age. As evident was the asymmetry in suffering throughout the pandemic. workers continued to face long hours and low pay, in addition to new on-the-job risksand understaffing. Those who toiled for poverty wages listened as they were praised as “essential,” lauded as “heroes.” (It was not lost on many that the latter term implies self-sacrifice.) Workers correctly concluded that they were essential if wages were still so low. going unheardInvite others retaliation?

It was impossible to ignore the dissonance between this rhetoric, and the real-world sense of disposability. Jonah Furman and Gabriel Winant wrote about it. in The Intercept: “The ‘essential’ worker — a new category of worker born of the coronavirus pandemic — challenges the boss to make good on that designation.” Still, while the mounting contradictions have helped effect a shift in consciousness, workers “are not particularly organized … union density [is] at a historical nadir.”

The result was that much of the long-running mass discontentment became atomized acts and resistance. Employees began to quit en masse, at an unprecedented pace — a record 4.3 million in August,A Bureau of Labor Statistics count. Particularly high are the quit rates in hospitality, retail and health careIn a clear correlation with pandemic risk. What has been termed “The Great Resignation” is the product of untenable workplace strains, which have been accentuated — though not necessarily instigated — by COVID.

It’s critical to point out, as Kim Moody did in an article for the Marxist journal SpectreThe quit rate has actually been rising steadily since 2009, well before the pandemic. An analysis by Gallup similarly ventured that “The Great Resignation” is perhaps more aptly termed “The Great Discontent.” Recent resignations are only symptomatic — indicating workers’ “job dissatisfaction” and an increasing “confidence to act” in response to their circumstances, as Moody described it.

This “Great Resignation” has tightened the labor market: There are now more job openings (October saw a high of 11 millionThere are fewer workers available to fill these positions. Accordingly, workers, aware they’ve become less replaceable, now find themselves in a newly advantageous position. Many have been empowered to fight for piecemeal changeIn their workplaces by agitating to improve wages and tips, workplace safety, and greater flexibility In 2020 and 2021, low-paid employees will be the norm. have regularly walked off the job or otherwise protestedThere are many non-union employers that offer employment, including majorFast food outlets, Walmart, Instacart, Dollar GeneralOther companies that are notorious for their low wages and difficult working conditions include. Some of these flashes of dissent were hastily met with appeasement, as major corporations, including McDonald’s and Walmart, as well as CVS, Walgreens, Costco and Chipotle, announced wage increasesTo ensure that they could retain their workforce.

Supply chain disruptions have further strengthened workers’ position; increased consumer spending and a shortage of logistics workers have strained the nation’s fragile “just-in-time” delivery model and equipped labor with another fulcrum for exerting leverage against employers. Unfortunately, the downside to these hiring problems is that the remaining unemployed are now overworked to make up the difference.

But scattered wins for scattered workforces, dispersed acts of protest or angry resignations are not the exact same thing as collective working class power. Writing in Dissent, Nelson Lichtenstein distinguishes between organizing and these disparate reactions: “Non-union workers, no matter how aggrieved, do not go on strike. They can quit their job, even walk out together for a shift or two, but in the absence of some independent organization, almost always a trade union, their protest soon dissolves.” The deep ebb of union density has precluded opportunities for more impactful, coordinated actions. There is still much organizing work to do. “Still, compared with the lethargy labor has shown for decades, there was a definite twitch — perceptible maybe more in the Feeling thanIn the hard numbers,” as Alexandra Bradbury put it in Labor Notes.

“Where workers are organized collectively into unions, tight labor markets lead to rising willingness to confront employers over the terms and conditions of employment, instead of just looking for a better deal elsewhere,” continued Furman and Winant. “In other words, the same forces making work intolerable for so many — not enough workers and too much work — are simultaneously preparing workers to fight back.” Rather than unfocused energies that dissipate in sporadic walkouts, unionization facilitates the constructive, sustained development of worker power.

A Strike Wave Of All Sorts

In 2021, strikes erupted across many industries and displayed the expressions of that sustained energy. In his article Spectre, Moody tabulated 194 through November — over twice the totals of earlier years, and nearly triple the 66 that occurred in 2020. Yet with that increase comes a caveat: While strikes were numerous, the number of total strikers this year (73,000) didn’t approach the hundreds of thousands in 2018 and 2019 that took action during the General Motors and nationwide teachers’ strikes — earlier fights that had helped turn up the earth in fields that had long lain fallow.

2021, rather, was notable for an increase not in the numerical extent of labor actions, but in their breadth: Of Moody’s total count of 194 strikes, 124 took place at non-education, non-health care private-sector employers. (Bureau of Labor Statistics data only documents strikes of over 1,000 workers, so the true scale of collective action can be obscured; Moody’s analysis incorporated actions with fewer participants. Furthermore, measuring individual acts of resistance that don’t necessarily constitute traditional, authorized strikes can offer perspective on rising workplace antagonisms, if not the precise contours of organized labor. These broader metrics are used by the Cornell University Labor Action Tracker. tallied more than 300 on-the-job actions over the past year.)

Still, the common media characterization of the events of 2021 as a “strike wave” (commentators also coined the moniker “Striketober” to describe an especially sharp uptick in the fall) has been borne out only in one particular sense: Strikes have spread to new sectors. The overall number of workers involved in 2021’s “Striketober” (22,000) doesn’t compare to the 85,000 of October 2019. The shocking revelation that, despite the expansion into new sectors, the total number of organizing election petition filings had actually fallen to a record low by the year’s close. Flourishing militancy didn’t reliably translate to collective power.

As union organizer and analyst C.M. Lewis writes, while the “strike wave” is in some ways overstated, it’s still the case that “private sector strike activity is not only growing, it’s spreading throughout the economy in a fashion largely unseen in over a decade.” Despite this growth, there remain untapped opportunities: In 2021, 450 union contracts covering 200 or more workers expired — critical hinge points that, nevertheless, went largely uncontested, a sign that further organization is needed. However, 2022 is just around the corner and conditions are still ripe for labor militancy. The expiration of hundreds of additional contractsThe next year will see more clashes between workers, bosses, and the public.

In an interviewJonah Furman, Verso Books, provided a nuanced viewpoint on the upswell in strikes.

That is one way to get it. [discrepancy between low overall numbers and the term “strike wave”] is simply that there’s a very low level of labor literacy and the media was looking for a story and found one; hype, in other words. Another way to understand it, though, is that a “strike wave” isn’t just about arithmetic; you don’t just add up the number of workers on strike … What’s notable about this fall is that the strikes are being connected to a political and social moment … So even if the quantity of strikes doesn’t compare to previous moments, the quality of the strikes feels politically and socially relevant.

The Two-Tier Contract:

Beyond these general connections to the sociopolitical moment of 2021, there were more specific commonalities in the labor struggles. A number of critical fights had in common a pressure point: two-tier contract models. “Two-tier” refers to a pay and benefits plan in which different subsets of employees are remunerated under separate contracts. Existing employees are often given preferential terms while future employees will be offered a more favorable package. These arrangements are transparently in the best interests of management. Their purpose (beyond reducing staffing costs) is to divide workforces against themselvesby introducing competing incentives. Refusals to give up contractual ground reflected labor’s escalating audacity: Opposition to two-tier contracts had particular purchase in 2021, and, on many occasions, unions readily rejected concessionary proposals — including tentative agreements reached by the union’s own leaders.

John Deere, a legacy manufacturer, was the site of one of the most well-known conflicts. The company had multibillion-dollar profits for a year. bestowed its shareholders and executivesWorkers were given very small increases while receiving exorbitant handouts. The new contract also included a third tier to the already existing two-tier plan, which would have denied pensions for new employees. Its UAW-represented workforce voted in overwhelming favor of authorizing a strike. (A second-tier plan was also approved. a key driver of the major UAW strikeGeneral Motors in 2019). Over 10,000 John Deere employees were present throughout October held out against two offers. It is important that rank-and file members rejected concessions that were negotiated by UAW higher ups. This is a sign of their growing militancy. After five weeks, members agreed to accept. a third agreementAlthough the final contract did not remove the multi-tiered system that had been in place since 1997 but preserved the pension, it established a retirement healthcare fund.

John Deere’s rebellion against membership was a sign of simmering internal tensions at major unions like the United Auto Workers. Systemic corruption amidst top leadershipUAW has been plagued by scandals ranging from embezzlement and selling out workers by accepting kickbacks from management over terms. It’s for reasons like these that the union democracy movementadvocates for increased participation of rank-and file in decision-making as well as the direct election to leadership. Union democracy advocates, organized in groups such as the Association for Union DemocracyReform union structures that have become more hierarchical. This allows powerful leaders to make decisions that are not in line with the interests of the rank and file. Some unions use Electoral College-like voting systems to override majorities and support autocratic leadership. “one-party rule.”The culmination of years-long organizing efforts by the rank-and-file UAW members who are pro-union democracy elements, was this December the passage of a referendumThis will allow direct elections and instituting a “one member, one vote” system. Another internal sea change also occurred within the Teamsters, the nation’s largest private-sector union. Teamsters United, union democracy advocates, supported this slate. swept leadership elections late 2021This new administration has stated its intention to unify the rank-and file confront two-tier at UPS — and take on Amazon.

A two-tier proposal, along with brutal working conditions, also drove the 2021 Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers’ (BCTGM) strike at Nabisco. It began with a familiar story: The brand’s multibillion-dollar holding company Mondelēz had a banner yearIts CEO was treated to a $42.4 million salary package. Unions responded to the union’s concerns about deteriorating conditions and low pay, as well as burdensome concession demands, and the threat from outsourcing. A walkout took place at a Portland, Oregon facility. a coordinated strike across five statesAll Nabisco distribution and production facilities in the country participated in the strike. The five-week-long strike was concluded with the acceptance by Nabisco of an improved contract. some workers remained unsatisfiedWith the compromise. BCTGM Locals also struck for 19 days at a Frito-Lay plant in Topeka, Kansas, and then at four facilities owned by processed food giant Kellogg’s. A two-tier contract was the operative concernIn the latter 11-week strikeThis issue attracted national attention, and consumer boycotts were initiated. Once more, tentative agreements were reached that addressed workers’ demands, though not without compromise.

Resignations led to a shortage in workers across all industries, but it was the health care industry that was most worrying. Overwork and COVID pressures have led to. soaring dropout rates in the profession — and understaffing was at crisis levelsEven before the pandemic. A 21-union, 52,000-worker coalition known as the Alliance of Healthcare Unions represents many Kaiser Permanente employees. When the Alliance authorized a strike for fall 2021, it made it clear that understaffing was a key issue. Kaiser (which had raked in billionsOnly that quarter, management offered a two-tier contract. Union members claimed this would make it harder to attract new employees and worsen the crisis. Management had been attempting to mitigate the insufficient staff levels by hiring temporary “travel nurses” and reassigning managers to patient treatment, some of whom were less than optimally trained. (The risks this strategy poses to patients are obvious. But labor’s power was rapidly asserted: Faced with walkouts on a vast scale, Kaiser management capitulatedIn advance of the strike

The Kaiser strike threat was huge in scale, but it was only one labor dispute in health care this year. Many others revolved around the exact same issues. Workers were also motivated by concerns about safe staffing ratios. at Mercy Hospital in Buffalo, New YorkTo start a strike in October; the Catholic Health network that oversees it had also sought to establish a two-tier system. Employees of St. Vincent Hospital in Massachusetts,Part of the massive for-profit Tenet Health corporation Washington State’s Cascade Behavioral Health CenterLast year, the incident was also caused by insufficient safety conditions and staffing.

The United Mine Workers of America have been on strike at Alabama’s Warrior Met Coal Company since April 1. Warrior Met bought Walter Energy in 2016, which was bankrupt and went bankrupt in 2016. Contract negotiations were halted when workers lost the benefits they had under their previous employer, Walter Energy. Workers were sacrificed overtime pay and health care coverageThey were often required to work 12-hour shifts seven days a weeks, holidays included. Management, which had been given large bonuses, confronted striking workers with judicial action barring their pickets. Their attacks on the picket lines escalated into violence, including instances of vehicular assault — committed by company employees — that allegedly injured multiple picketers. Local police “have shown little or no interest in pursuing the perpetrators,” the union contends. As of writing, the UMWA was still on strike.

The list goes on. Significantly, vote to form the first unionsIn Buffalo, New York, Starbucks corporate-owned stores were opened. These efforts were quickly recognized. familiar management surveillance and intimidation — but the union was won. Howard Schultz, Starbucks CEO and former presidential candidate, displays his characteristic tact, found that the development was too grim to be believed. invoke the Holocaust.)

In October, after having authorized a strike, members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) reached a tentative agreement with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers for “reasonable rest periods; meal breaks; a living wage for those on the bottom of the pay scale; and significant increases in compensation to be paid by new-media companies,” the union reported. However, a large portion of the rank and file was displeased with the eventual agreement — thanks to the IATSE’s delegate system (in which elected union officers ostensibly represent worker interests, instead of allowing members a direct vote), it was ratified against the majority. This is the type of dilution of the rank-and-file’s interestThe union democracy movement is committed to contesting.

Much as “essential workers” have reconsidered their relation to their employers, a shift in self-perception has also occurred in academia. Despite pushback from the administrations of Columbia, Harvard, New York University, the University of California system, and elsewhere, graduate student employees at those schools have come to view themselves as not only pupils but also “essential” employees — and drastically overworked, sub-minimum-wage employees at that. There is a new wave of organizing among private-school graduate student (including, notably: 17,000 University of California student researchers) made up another distinct facet of labor’s 2021 upsurge, indicative of labor’s widening mobilization.

Some further examples: After picketing for a single day, Oregon’s United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 555, representing employees of the Kroger-owned Fred Meyer and QFC chains, reached a tentative agreement “significant wage increases, added workplace protections, a secure retirement and quality healthcare.” California telecom workersThe Communications Workers of America initiated an Unfair Labor Practice Strike in October. School bus drivers went on strikeProtests were held in three Maryland counties against driver shortages, pay and conditions. The UAW struck and reached a deal at a Volvo truck plantWhile you are in Norfolk, Virginia the Northwest Carpenters UnionSeattle cost-of living wage increases were a difficult battle. However, some improvements were made. Employees of Activision Blizzard, a major video game publisher took initial stepsTo organize with the Communications Workers of America, which is rare in that industry. Nursing home workers with an SEIU local won gains with threats of a strikeConnecticut: The Air Engineering Metal Trades Council (AEMTC), aerospace engineers challenged unfair labor practices in Tennessee. This is just a small sample. At 194 actions (by Kim Moody’s count), the cross-sector strike activity of 2021 was far too expansive to relate here in its entirety.

Bessemer Giant Takes on

The labor struggle that was the subject of the most feverish attention this year was one that culminated, at least for now, in a loss: Amazon crushed a Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) organizing drive at its facility in Bessemer, Alabama, living up to the company’s reputation for ruthlessness. The media coverage was justifiable: Even the smallest union at Amazon’s U.S. facility would serve as a hub for further efforts against the titanic exploiter. It could also allow organizing efforts across its 400,000 operations workers throughout the country. Accordingly, the bosses fear it like nothing else.

The (largely Black) workforce was kept busy after the RWDSU began its efforts at organizing the Bessemer facility. incessant anti-union agitation, multiple texts a day (“We don’t believe that you need to pay someone to speak for you or that you need to pay dues for what you already get for free,” read one example), constant monitoring and surveillance and captive-audience anti-union propaganda sessions. Amazon management had no qualms about issuing threats to cut benefits or close the warehouse, or about telling outright lies — claiming untruthfully that, with a union, employees wouldn’t be allowed to file complaints with managers, and that “RWDSU’s goal was to raise money to pay for union leaders’ cars and meals.” (It’s indicative of the degraded state of U.S. labor law that such manipulative union-busting tactics are largely legal.)

RWDSU charges that Amazon is negligent on health and safety, both regarding pandemic measures and as a result of the company’s punishing warehouse environment. Warehouse workers often succumb to heatstroke despite being allowed bare-minimum breaks. suffer injuriesAnd mental health episodesAll inclusive suicidal ideationas the company is well aware. The “unbearable pace of work,” as the RWDSU describes it, results from Amazon’s devotion to rapid just-in-time logistics. Across Amazon’s empire, deaths are not uncommon. Six people were killed when a tornado struck an Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville. As labor journalist Kim Kelly has reportedSix workers were also killed at the Bessemer warehouse in just the last year.

In Bessemer, Amazon hired police to intimidate organizers, and went as far as to work with Alabama’s Jefferson County to change the timing on a stoplightto stop union organizers speaking to workers when the light was red. (This accusation is made by the RWDSU was later corroboratedA county official spoke to the labor outlet More Perfect Union) When the time of the election arrived, Amazon management also worked with the U.S. Postal Service install their own on-site mailboxTo gather ballots and give the impression of a monitored vote. The union was defeated in the end, a result that was clearly influenced and influenced by intimidation tactics employed by management. interference. But that was not the end. The RWDSU was charged with undue influence and a National Labor Relations Board, NLRB. hearing officer issued a recommendationThat was also agreed. These findings were used to determine that the NLRB was in good standing. ruled in NovemberThe election was not possible due to the interference of the mailboxes and other sources. must be run again. This series of events at Amazon reflects the labor movement’s at-once embattled and empowered state: Though assailed by some of the nation’s most powerful interests, facing lopsided disadvantages, workers remain in the fight.

New Potential in the Old Struggle

2021, despite all the cross-sector conflict that has erupted like brush fires throughout the country, ended with austerity in place, inequality deeply engraved, and capital still lording over the working classes. Although resistance is growing, missed opportunities abound. Uncontested contract renewals as well as the dismal number of new union election filings show that the institutional labor strategy has not been able take full advantage the churning discontent.

“Unfortunately,” wrote labor strategist Jane McAlevey in The Nation, “most national unions squandered 2021 by prioritizing behind-the-scenes jockeying for access to the Biden administration and crumbs from the bosses’ table.”

Corrupt or sclerotic conservative leaders, such as the UAW have dissipated rank-and-file energies by negotiating concessionary contracts. Neal Meyer wroteIn The Call that membership militancy has not “received much support from labor leaders. Caught unaware — and in some cases caught negotiating contracts that their more rebellious rank-and-file members then bravely rejected and struck against — conservative union leaders have predictably refused to fan the flames of a labor rebellion.” But promisingly, the direct-democracy referendum and the new leadership slate in the UAW and the Teamsters, respectively, hint at shifts in these internal power relations.

More broadly, the resources of many unions are simply too limited to instrumentalize members’ newly radical orientation, especially given the overwhelming power of the bosses. The anti-union attitude that Amazon displayed when confronted by the Bessemer union drive is not uncommon. intimidation and harassment remain the norm. Yet capital’s kneejerk hostility speaks to the power of collective action. Despite the fact resistance is still weak and many obstacles remain, the momentum of discontent seems poised to propel the movement beyond the disruptions caused by COVID.

As Moody writes, there is every “reason to believe that strike action and militancy in general will continue if we understand the ‘uptick’ of 2018-2021 as the result not only of pandemic and conjunctural conditions, but of the accumulation of grievances over a long period.”

The immiserations of the neoliberal era — the vast profiteering by capital, its unwillingness to provide fair wages and humane workplaces — has ratcheted up the fundamental contradictions between labor and management, sowing the seeds of resistance. To workers, the relationship between capital’s gilded excess and their own dispossession has become more apparent.

For workers to continue to capitalize on these shifting dynamics will demand that ambient discontent is channeled into concerted organizing — but 2021 has shown clear signs that the process of galvanization has begun, as labor brandishes power in long-organized sectors and lays foundations in new ones. The resurgence of the U.S. union remains nascent, but it’s apparent that — however tentatively — working-class power is beginning to find its footing once again.