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'Striketober' could have lasting impact on labor

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

There's a term floating around to refer to this month.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Striketober (ph).

CHANG: Striketober.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: ...The media have dubbed Striketober.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: After workers at all of the Kellogg Company's U.S. cereal plants walked off the job this week.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Thousands have gone on strike at food plants.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: A wave of walkouts by American workers this month of October.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Unintelligible).

CHANG: Workers are demanding better wages, better working conditions and more benefits. This comes as Americans have spent more than a year working during a pandemic with long hours and increased health risks, all while corporate profits continue to grow. At the same time, employers of all kinds are struggling to fill jobs, and millions of workers are quitting in what some have called the great resignation. And these striking workers - well, they're getting attention. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh talked to striking Kellogg workers in Pennsylvania. Local news outlets, including Lancaster Online, covered the visit.

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MARTY WALSH: I want you to know that we are watching. You do have support.

CHANG: There are strikes each and every year, but the kind of pressure a strike can exert seemed to be diminishing a few decades ago, like in 1981, when American air traffic controllers walked out.

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RONALD REAGAN: This morning at 7 a.m., the union representing those who man America's air traffic control facilities called a strike.

CHANG: That is then-President Ronald Reagan. Ultimately, he decided to play hardball with the striking controllers.

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REAGAN: It is for this reason that I must tell those who fail to report for duty this morning they are in violation of the law. And if they do not report for work within 48 hours, they have forfeited their jobs and will be terminated.

CHANG: More than 11,000 air traffic controllers were officially fired. Major strikes have declined since then, so we wanted to know, why is Striketober happening now. Why does it seem like so many American workers are either striking or threatening to strike? To help us answer those questions, we brought in Joseph McCartin. He's a professor of history and the director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University. Professor McCartin joins us now.

Welcome.

JOSEPH MCCARTIN: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: Hi. So tell us; why exactly are we seeing so many strikes right now in particular?

MCCARTIN: I think it's for reasons that you've just suggested. One is that workers have just come through the pandemic, and the economy is just beginning to improve. And usually after a big crisis and when things begin to improve, workers can become more militant.

I think the fact that this has coincided with the great resignation is also crucial because we've seen a tremendous upsurge in workers quitting jobs in the private sector. And that's unusual. In August, we set a record for such quits. And what I think that shows is that there's a broad dissatisfaction that workers feel. And that's giving workers who are organized, like the union workers you've just referred to, more leverage.

I think the third thing is that people see now that they have an administration in power that's really openly siding with workers and even taking positions in support of strikes. It's very unusual for cabinet members to visit strike picket lines.

CHANG: OK. Well, a lot of these things that you have cited - they will be in place, at least for quite some time. So could that mean that we will be seeing even more strikes soon?

MCCARTIN: You know, strikes tend to breed strikes. If workers see that strikes are being effective, they're more likely to use the strike weapon. And actually, that's the reverse of what happened in the case of the PATCO strike. The PATCO strike was such a severe setback for labor that it really discouraged workers to use the strike.

CHANG: And just to be clear, PATCO is the air traffic controllers that you're referring to.

MCCARTIN: Oh, that's right - the air traffic controllers strike of 1981. It really set a mood in the country in which workers became fearful of striking, and that led to an almost disappearance of strikes in the private sector of this country. In 1952, there were 470 large-scale strikes involving at least a thousand workers in the United States. Last year there were only eight. And of those eight, only two were in the private sector.

CHANG: Well, I'm curious because you've been studying and teaching labor history for years. And in your view, what makes this current wave of strikes significant or unique?

MCCARTIN: I think one of the things that makes it unique is the post-pandemic context. The pandemic disrupted a lot of the status quo and labor management relations in a way that only happened, I think, three times in the 20th century - after both of the World Wars and during the Great Depression. It was in each of those cases, by the way, that we saw big upsurges in worker militancy. When the status quo gets upended, it changes workers' expectations. Coming out of World War II, workers had made sacrifices, and they wanted rewards after the war. And I think a similar feeling pervades the American workforce today. A lot of people sacrificed a lot in the past year - the essential workers, for example. And yet they're looking at a labor market that they feel like still doesn't reward them as they feel they ought to be rewarded.

CHANG: Well, when it comes to the power that strikes can exert, when it comes to the leverage that workers have, do you think that workers now actually do have more leverage in this moment?

MCCARTIN: They actually do have more leverage right now. And part of that has to do with the great resignation, which is showing discontent that is tightening the labor market. What's unique about this moment, in a way, is that there is a labor shortage that many employers are complaining about, but it's a labor shortage that's largely worker-driven. Workers have been withdrawing from the labor market in dissatisfaction with the jobs that they're - that they currently have. We still haven't returned to the job levels we had before the recession.

CHANG: Yeah.

MCCARTIN: We're at about 80% of what we had before COVID struck.

CHANG: So interesting. But then how long can that leverage last? Like, could this Striketober stretch into a months-long wave and have maybe even long-term impacts?

MCCARTIN: It could. It could last for quite a while. The militancy that came up after World War II went on for more than a year, and it did have long-term consequences - the same thing after World War I. And what happened in those cases, especially after World War I - employers started to realize from the post-war strike militancy...

CHANG: Yeah.

MCCARTIN: ...That workers weren't as happy as they thought that they were and that the jobs needed to be improved. And employers needed to get on that program and make some improvements. And so we could possibly see that.

CHANG: That is Joseph McCartin, history professor at Georgetown and director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor.

Thank you very much for being with us today.

MCCARTIN: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIG STAR SONG, "THE BALLAD OF EL GOODO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.