Strikes? Unions? What’s up with U.S. workers?

“Big” Bill Haywood, an early 20th century union radical, once declared, “If the workers are organized, all they have to do is to put their hands in their pockets and they have got the capitalist class whipped.”

Mr. Haywood’s words remain relevant as there’s still no better tool in the workers’ toolbox than a strike because it hits employers where it hurts most: their pocketbooks.

We’re seeing more strikes — and more support for them — than in decades. Food production workers and nurses, oil refinery workers and teachers, and many others are walking out. Locally, one can’t help but recall last year’s John Deere strike.

In 2021, Deere announced a record $6 billion profit and rewarded its CEO with a 160% raise while shareholders received a 17% dividend. By contrast, 10,000 of Deere’s manufacturing workers, represented by the United Auto Workers (UAW), were offered 5% raises. In response, literally 99% of workers voted to strike. After being out for a month, they doubled their wage increases and won other gains.

They’re not alone. The National Labor Relations Board reported that filings of union elections are up 57% compared to last year. These include campaigns in media, higher education, health care, retail and food production.

When 8,500 workers in a New York City warehouse voted to join the Amazon Labor Union it was the first victory among logistics workers at one of the world’s largest and most powerful corporations. Expect more organizing at Amazon.

Perhaps the most interesting union drive is at Starbucks, where many thousands of workers at hundreds of coffeeshops are organizing in a shockingly fast wave. Sometimes baristas strike before they even unionize.

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz recently asserted it was due to ​“the frustration and anxieties that Gen Z Americans are facing, having come of age during turbulent moments in our history: the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, The Great Recession and now The Global Coronavirus Pandemic. These young people have completely valid concerns given today’s uncertainty and economic instability. They look around and they see the burgeoning labor movement as a possible remedy.”

Mr. Schultz’s explanation is accurate — partially. But the Deere strike, for instance, was not due to Gen Z “anxieties.”

Instead, workers are enraged by corporations announcing historic profits while people struggle to make ends meet, all the more so after two-plus years amidst stressful, often deadly, conditions. Add to that soaring inflation.

While the future remains unwritten, worker militancy likely will continue and every union victory might inspire other workers to do the same. Mr. Haywood, for one, would be clapping after taking his hands out of his pockets.

Peter Cole, a professor of history at Western Illinois University, Macomb, is author of “Dockworker Power: Race and Activism in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area.” 

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