Union Strikes

            I was meeting with a group of employees last week that are interested in forming a labor union. Over my 25 years representing workers and unions, I have never seen as much interest in unionizing as I do right now.

            Lots of factors are involved. The pandemic made folks feel powerless in the face of vaccine mandates and tenuous job security. When unprecedented inflation quickly followed the pandemic, raising prices while wages stagnated, employees began looking for a way to respond. And finally, as workers chose not to return to their former positions and jobs went unfilled, the burden of performing more work with fewer workers became too much to bear for those who continued to show up.

            All of this made the time right for unions to become an attractive response to a changing labor market.

            Anyway, while I was meeting with this new group of employees last week, one of the first questions that I got was, “When can we strike?”

            That simple question told me a lot. Workers seem to be angry at their current working conditions. And they seem ready to fight even if they may get bloodied in the battle. Strikes aren’t easy, and they pose great danger for workers. Striking workers can be replaced. And depending on the motivating causes of the strike, workers can sometimes be permanently replaced. Plants can close, and even if they don’t, at least while the strike goes on bills for workers will largely go unpaid.

            Still, there was an inkling of interest in striking. It told me that the workers are angry, and they are also feeling their power in this moment. As if they’re mad as hell, and they’re not going to take it anymore, in the immortal words of Howard Beale.

            Last week, a major strike was averted in the final hours among rail workers and freight rail companies that likely would have led to millions of dollars in financial losses and supply chain disruptions throughout the country. Reporting on the matter indicated that workers were upset about working conditions, and particularly that they were unable to get time off from the job to attend to medical appointments.

            Buried in the reporting was the fact that ultimately the strike was settled with a five-year wage increase totaling 24 percent for most workers. Here’s the thing: labor discord is rarely about time off for medical appointments or flexible scheduling or an additional personal day.

            It is almost always about what the numbers look like on payday. A 24 percent pay increase over five years is a healthy increase even in today’s economy where inflation is running at more than 8 percent annually. The contract ultimately settled not because the employees won a concession for doctor’s appointments. It settled because employees are going to have increased pay. And that pay is not important simply because it will only allow the workers to pay for gas, food, mortgages, and vacations.

            It is important because it tells the workers that they have value to the companies that are earning unprecedented profits. It is a thank you to the workers who have toiled throughout the uncertainty of a pandemic taking on heavier workloads under difficult conditions.

            Workers simply want to be valued. And the way they are shown their value is through the pay that they receive. Until balance is brought back into the labor market by paying employees their true value, I’d expect that I am going to continue having discussions with groups of workers about when they can finally strike.

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