How the Pandemic Has Added to Labor Unrest
While big companies wield considerable power, Covid’s economic disruption has given workers new leverage, contributing to a recent upturn in strikes.
When 420 workers at the Heaven Hill spirits bottling plant near Louisville went on strike in September, they were frustrated that the company’s proposed contract could reduce their overtime pay. Many had earned extra income working seven days a week during the pandemic.
“We were essential,” said Leslie Glazar, recording secretary of the local union representing spirits workers. “They kept preaching, ‘You get us through that, we’ll make it worth your time.’ But we went from heroes to zero.”
The recent strike at Heaven Hill, which ended in late October after the company softened its overtime proposal, appears to reflect the current moment: Buoyed by shortages in labor and supplies that leave employers more vulnerable, and frustrated by what they see as unfair treatment during the pandemic, workers are standing up for a better deal.
Data collected by the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University shows the number of workers on strike increased in October, to more than 25,000, versus an average of around 10,000 in the previous three months.
“Labor market leverage and the fact that workers have been through incredibly difficult working conditions over the past year and a half with the pandemic are combining to explain a lot of this labor activism now,” said Johnnie Kallas, a Ph.D. student and the project director of Cornell’s Labor Action Tracker.
Large companies continue to have considerable power, and it is not clear that the recent job actions point to a new era of widespread strikes. Many workers who were nearing a strike appear to have pulled back from the brink, including 60,000 film and television production workers, whose strike threat was at least temporarily defused when their union reached tentative agreements with production studios. And even a doubling or tripling of strike activity would fall well below levels common in the 1960s and 70s.
But the fitful economic recovery from the pandemic has eroded management’s advantages. Employers are having unusual difficulty in filling jobs — this summer, the Labor Department recorded the highest number of job openings since it began keeping such data in 2000. And for some companies, supply-chain disruptions have taken a toll on the bottom line.
In a recent survey by IPC, a trade association representing the electronics industry, nine out of 10 manufacturers complained that the time it takes to make their goods had increased. Nearly one-third reported delays of eight weeks or more.
Many workers also contend that their employers have failed to share enormous pandemic-era profits, even as they sometimes risked their lives to make those earnings possible. Striking workers at John Deere, whose union announced a tentative agreement with the company over the weekend, have pointed out that Deere is on pace to set a record profit of nearly $6 billion this fiscal year even as it sought to end traditional pensions for new hires. The United Automobile Workers said a vote on the contract was expected this week.
Workers say that when companies do offer raises, the increases are often limited and don’t make up for the weakening of benefits that they have endured for years.
That helps explain why the upturn in labor action dates back to 2018, when tens of thousands of teachers walked off the job in states like West Virginia and Arizona, though the lockdowns and layoffs of the pandemic initially suppressed strike activity. With workers in both Democratic and Republican states feeling wronged, the strike impulse tends to transcend partisan divides.
One increasingly common complaint is the so-called two-tier compensation structure, in which workers hired before a certain date may earn a higher wage or a traditional pension, while more recent hires have a lower maximum wage or receive most of their retirement benefits through a variable plan like a 401(k).
Frustration with the two-tier system helped propel a six-week strike at General Motors in 2019, and has loomed over several strikes this year, including Kellogg and Deere. Deere workers hired after 1997 have much smaller traditional pensions.
In some cases, workers have even grown skeptical of their union leadership, worrying that negotiators have become too remote from the concerns of the rank and file.
This is particularly true at the United Automobile Workers, which has been wracked by a corruption scandal in which more than 15 people have been convicted, including two recent presidents. Some Deere workers cited discontent with their union’s leadership in explaining their vote against the initial contract the union had negotiated.
It is also a feeling that some Hollywood crew members have expressed about negotiations handled by their union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. “They’re not bad people, they’re working in good faith,” said Victor P. Bouzi, a sound mixer and IATSE member based in Southern California. “But they’re not seeing what’s happening to people and how we’re getting squeezed down here.”
Yet for every force pushing workers toward a strike, there are others that push in the other direction.
Union leaders can be reluctant to strike after having negotiated a deal for workers. IATSE leaders are endorsing the tentative agreements they reached with the studios in October, and even those who oppose them believe it will be a long shot for the membership to vote them down.
Matthew Loeb, the IATSE president, said that 36 locals were closely involved in developing the union’s bargaining objectives and that “our members demonstrated incredible union solidarity that stunned the employers and helped us to achieve our stated goals.”
For their part, companies often pre-empt a labor action by improving compensation, something that appears to be happening as employers raise wages, though that is also to attract new workers. (It’s less clear if the wage increases are keeping up with inflation outside leisure and hospitality industries.)
Manufacturing workers contemplating strikes may have jobs that are relatively sought-after in their cities and towns, making workers less keen to risk their jobs in the event of a strike, and potentially easier to fill than a quick glance at the number of local openings would suggest.
And the mere act of striking can exert an enormous psychological and financial toll in an economy where workers have a limited safety net. When unionized workers receive strike pay, it’s typically a fraction of their usual pay, and they must often picket outside their workplace to receive it.
Companies can use the legal system to place restrictions on them — as with Warrior Met Coal in Alabama, where about 1,000 workers represented by the United Mine Workers of America have been on strike for seven months. The company recently won a court order prohibiting picketing within 300 yards of entrances.
As difficult as a strike can be when workers are unionized, it is far more difficult when they’re not. Nonunionized workers often find strikes harder to organize and harder to endure because of the lack of pay. They are typically more vulnerable to potentially unlawful responses by employers, which unions have the legal muscle to resist.
It is perhaps no surprise that as the rate of union membership has fallen, so has the number of strikes. Until the early 1980s, the country typically saw more than 200 a year involving 1,000 or more workers, versus 25 in 2019, the highest in almost two decades. Far fewer than 20 began this year.
“The volume is quite minimal,” said Ruth Milkman, a sociologist of labor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. “That’s partly because only 6 percent of the private sector is organized.”
The recent strike at Heaven Hill in Bardstown, Ky., illustrates the complicated calculus facing workers. An analysis by the employment site ZipRecruiter showed that when the strike vote was taken in September, job postings in the Louisville area had increased by almost twice the percentage they had nationwide during the pandemic.
After the company threatened to bring in replacement workers, the employees were dismissive. “No one can find workers now — where do they think they’ll find 400?” Ms. Glazar, the local union official, said shortly before the strike ended. “That’s the only thing that keeps us smiling out there.”
There were also indications that Heaven Hill was running low on inventory as the strike wore on, crimping the company’s ability to age and bottle alcohol that it produced in Louisville. “We could see the truck movement had slowed down from week one to week six — there were not near as many trucks in and out,” Ms. Glazar said.
Josh Hafer, a company spokesman, said, “There may have been some small-scale products impacted, but not to any large degree.”
Still, the workers were under enormous stress. Their health benefits ended when their contract expired, and some workers found their insurance was no longer valid while trying to squeeze in a final doctor’s appointment.
And while jobs in the area appeared plentiful, many workers preferred to stay in the whiskey-making business. “I like what I do, I enjoy everything about bourbon,” said Austin Hinshaw, a worker who voted to strike at the Heaven Hill plant. “I have worked at a factory before, and it’s not my thing.” In late October, Mr. Hinshaw accepted a job at a distillery in town where he had been applying for months.
A few days earlier, Heaven Hill management had worked out a new agreement with the union. The proposed contract included a commitment to largely maintain the existing overtime pay rules for current workers, though it left open the possibility that future workers would be scheduled on weekends at regular pay, which grated on union members. The company also offered a slightly larger pay increase than it had offered just before the workers’ contract expired in September.
In a statement, Heaven Hill pointed to the generous health benefits and increased wages and vacation time in the new contract.
The company’s proposal divided the members, many of whom wanted to keep fighting, but more than one-third voted in favor of the contract, the minimum needed to approve it and end the strike.
“There are a lot of mixed emotions,” Ms. Glazar said. “Some of them are just disappointed. They thought that it would have been better.”
Peter S. Goodman contributed reporting. Kirsten Noyes contributed research.
Noam Scheiber is a Chicago-based reporter who covers workers and the workplace. He spent nearly 15 years at The New Republic magazine, where he covered economic policy and three presidential campaigns. He is the author of “The Escape Artists.” @noamscheiber
A version of this article appears in print on Nov. 2, 2021, Section B, Page 1 of the New York edition with the headline: How the Pandemic Has Given Workers New Leverage