Labor Unions Across The Country Are Demanding To Be Heard
If you haven’t noticed, organized labor is on the rise. But, judging from your Instagram stories, a lot of people in Ithaca have noticed. In October, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) threatened to strike for the first time since World War II. This strike ultimately didn’t come to fruition after IATSE came to a tentative agreement with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. The new contract does improve wages for the lowest paid members of the union, and requires more meal breaks and turn around time. The contract will also increase wages on streaming shows. The nature of streaming platforms have caused workers to miss out on residual payments towards their pensions and health care plans they would’ve gotten for DVDs and similar releases. Though the wages will increase on these shows, they won’t fully offset the losses.
But not all of IATSE’s members were fully satisfied. Some of IATSE’s members have expressed trepidation in accepting the new contract, which they will vote on in November. In the initial vote to strike, of the 90 percent of responding members, 98 percent favored a strike. This, and the subsequent hesitancy to accept the new agreement shows one thing for sure: these union members are ready to fight.
IATSE wasn’t the only recent labor action to garner national headlines. In October, 10,000 members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) went on strike at 14 plants operated by John Deere. In Iowa, Kansas, Georgia, Colorado and Illinois, workers walked off the job. Back in July, workers at a Frito-Lay factory in Topeka, Kansas went on strike led by the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers’ International Union (BCTGM). This strike lasted 19 days and helped expose Frito-Lay’s abusive use of mandatory overtime and allegations of unsafe working conditions. All of this occurred as PepsiCo, Frito-Lay’s parent company, surged in value over the pandemic and Frito-Lay earned 4.5 billion in this year’s second quarter, amounting to nearly a quarter of PepsiCo’s revenue. Ultimately, this strike secured workers a guarantee of one day off. This certainly leaves much to be desired, but was nonetheless successful in exposing the actions of Frito-Lay, and securing at least 24 hours for the workers to enjoy.
Interestingly, Frito-Lay wasn’t the only snacking company to see a worker revolt. Nabisco, maker of Oreos, Chips-Ahoy and Ritz crackers to name a few, saw another strike also led by the BCTGM. This strike stretched across five states and included up to 1,000 workers. This occurred after Nabisco looked to move some personnel to 12-hour work days and union operatives claimed a decrease in overtime payments, all while Mondelez, the parent company of Nabisco, is valued at $86.5 billion. Nabisco itself has seen a 12 percent increase in revenue in the second quarter. This strike ended with a new agreement for providing $5,000 bonuses and increased contributions to worker 401(k)s.
But BCTGM still wasn’t done. As of the printing of this article, the union is still on strike against Kellogg’s over a similar song: long hours and less time off. Now, 1,400 workers are going on strike in Michigan, Nebraska, Pennsylvania and Tennessee. And if you’re wondering, Kellogg’s has also seen growing profits over the last two years.
Still, an obvious question remains: why so much labor action recently? Dr. Patricia Campos-Medina, the Executive Director of the Worker Institute at the Cornell School of Industrial Labor Relations, says one of the biggest factors is the global pandemic. Campos-Medina points out that many workers had to deal with enhanced risks in the workplace, whether it be workers in factories worrying about contracting the virus themselves, or service workers worrying not only about contracting the virus, but also policing customers, assuring all were wearing masks and socially distancing. Campos-Medina also points out that during the pandemic, an existing lack of benefits became even more overt.
“When people got sick and they couldn’t have access to healthcare, they didn’t have sick pay leave, they didn’t have sick family leave,” said Campos-Medina, pointing out that workers became even more aware of their own lack of benefits. “It became not just something people now-and-then complain about, but it became a reality for a majority of Americans.”
Dr. Campos-Medina also points out that a decline in labor is partially responsible for a loss in benefits and wages in the American working class. Back in the 1980s, the U.S. lost much of its manufacturing industry, a sector led by unions. The decline of unions is even clearer in the numbers. In the 1950s, 35 percent of America’s workers were unionized. This coincided with one of the largest economic booms in American history. Today, however, just under 11 percent of America’s workers are unionized, with a mere 6.3 percent of private sector workers unionized.
While the loss of manufacturing is well-known, there was a key exception. Dr. Campos-Medina points out that the food industry remained in the U.S. under the watchful eye of the FDA. This partially explains why the BCTGM seems to be so much more active than other unions.
Interestingly, despite the decline in Union membership, the popularity of unions has seen a notable increase. In 2020, polling found that 65 percent of Americans approved of unions. The last time numbers were that high was in the late 90s and early 2000s. Before that, it was in the 1960s. This poll also found that younger people were generally more supportive of unions than older people. What makes this so fascinating is that actual union membership is the inverse of this trend. In 2020, studies found that people from their mid-30s to mid-60s were more likely to be union members than people in their 20s.
Campos-Medina suggests that young people’s support for unions are the result of general interest in the politics of Progressive leaders such as Bernie Sanders. “Demanding cancellation of college debt, demanding more investment in higher education, and free community college,” said Dr. Campos-Medina as she pointed out that many young people exit college with mountains of debt, and an inability to participate in the economy in the same way their parents did.
Still, strikes are not the only form of labor action. As Dr. Campos-Medina suggests strikes are financially taxing on not only the unions themselves, but also their members who must go without a paycheck for weeks or even months at time. Strikes may be the most powerful arrow in a union’s quiver, but it’s also the one it only pulls when necessary. But some workers are expressing their dissatisfaction in other ways. Over the last few months a phenomenon known as the “Great Resignation” has taken place. According to PBS, more than 25 million Americans quit their jobs in the first seven months of 2021, either to pursue their own passions, reanalyze their life choices, or simply seek better employment. Dr. Campos-Medina points out this is also an act of protest. “They are protesting the conditions of their work.”
America’s workers have always been vital. But for too long, workers have been taught that they are easily replaceable, and thus not worth better benefits and better wages. But if the last few months have taught us anything, it’s that this was a lie. Whether it’s refusing to put up with toxic environments for paltry wages, or standing on a picket line, workers are showing their value, and demanding the respect it earns them. Indeed, Atlas has shrugged (perhaps not the way Ayn Rand wanted) and shown that it is the back of the American working class that our country’s economy rests upon.
For more information on union activity, check out the Cornell ILR Labor Action Tracker.
George Christopher is a third-year journalism major coming to you live from the picket line. They can be reached at [email protected]. Art by Art Editor Adam Dee.