2021: Brought To You By The Labor Movement!

2021 was a pretty tough year in a lot of ways, what with the whole "still being in a pandemic" thing and what have you. But it was also probably most important year for labor in about a century. From Striketober to the Great Resignation to unprecedented union votes (whether they were successful or not), workers across the country have been waking up and realizing that they have a hell of a lot more power than they thought they had.

And not only that, American approval of unions is at the highest it's been since 1965, with 68 percent of the country (90 percent of Democrats and even 47 percent of Republicans) approving.

While unionization, higher wages, and labor rights have been getting incrementally more popular over the last decade, the pandemic itself really kicked everything into gear — almost functioning as a general strike. As with a general strike, we all 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 (because it's pretty hard to schedule interviews when you don't know your work schedule until the day before it starts). 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.

Starting in the 1980s, Americans developed a lot of bad labor habits and created a lot of myths that led directly to workers being undervalued and underpaid, and to economic inequality getting completely out of control. Unions were demonized, "job creators" were lionized, workers bragged about not taking vacation days and working weekends without getting paid for it. Workers were told they were infinitely replaceable. A low minimum wage was justified because "Those are jobs for students! People aren't meant to make an actual living off of them! They should be happy they have those jobs at all because if you raise the minimum wage, the owners will just get robots to do their jobs instead!"

That one really, really did not survive COVID. I don't see any robots. Do you see any robots? I see fast food restaurants putting up "Starting at $15 an hour!" signs, not hiring Rosie from The Jetsons to flip burgers. I also see a whole lot of shops and restaurants putting up bitchy "Sorry we're closed, everyone is too lazy and no one wants to work for us, just because of how we won't pay them enough to live and are also very obviously incredibly miserable people!" signs.

Sometimes you just need Cher to slap you in the face and yell "SNAP OUT OF IT!" and that was kind of what happened with US workers this year. They realized their worth and decided to fight for it.

Throughout the year — and so much so in October that it was deemed "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 labor protests — so while the strikes may not have been particularly large, they were many. And they were influential.

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. They deserve more, but at least it was something. 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.

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. 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.

On top of that, we had some pretty important union votes — notably the first unionized Starbucks shop in Buffalo. While ultimately Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama, did not end up unionizing in April, the National Labor Relations Board determined in November that Amazon improperly influenced the vote, meaning that those workers will get a chance to redo it soon. And hey! Workers at other plants, like the one in Staten Island, are now pushing for a union vote themselves.

Of course, not everyone is having luck — there are still some strikes going on. Coal miners at Warrior Met Coal in Alabama have been striking since April and the best their bosses have offered is a measly "$1.50 raise, with $1 now and 50 cents after 3 years." The United Mine Workers of America is maintaining a strike fund for the workers, should you like to contribute.

Workers at the Jon Donaire Dessert company in Santa Fe Springs, California, (which makes ice cream cakes for Baskin Robbins, Cold Stone Creamery, Safeway and more) have been on strike for six weeks protesting terrible labor conditions, including having to make over 13 cakes a minute, working 13-15 hour days and getting only three sick days a year. The company has offered them a raise of one dollar an hour — workers who have been there a decade are currently making $16 an hour, one dollar more than California's minimum wage for companies with more than 26 employees — and is now threatening to take away the health insurance of striking employees and offer bonuses to scabs. Their strike fund is here.

Steel workers at the Special Metals plant in Huntington, West Virginia, have been on strike since October 1, citing unfair labor practices and a $700 a month health care plan with a high deductible among their concerns. The company, which is currently owned by Warren Buffett (who refuses to intervene) and made $1.5 billion in profits last year, offered employees a "new contract" giving them a one percent pay raise next year, cutting their health care and reducing their vacation days. Bernie Sanders has started a strike fund for them.

While no one can predict the future, the increase in strikes and labor protests is likely to inspire more strikes and labor protests, especially when workers can see the benefits other workers are getting — and that's good for all of us.

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Robyn Pennacchia

Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse


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