For US workers, 2018 was the year of the strike.
It may seem incongruent for workers to have gotten more militant in making demands of their employers in an economy with such low unemployment. The unemployment rate has hovered around 4 percent or less this year. If so many people can find work, what’s the problem?
Even as many of us have gone back to work in the years since the Great Recession, we’re not being rewarded for our labor. Wage growth has just recently started to show signs of increasing — it was up 3.1 percent over the last year, as of the most recent jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics — but it’s still lagging behind where it was before the recession and where you’d expect it to be, given the low unemployment rate. Four in ten adults in the US say they don’t have the money to cover an unexpected $400 emergency and more than a fifth can’t pay all of their monthly bills in full.
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Meanwhile, many of the new jobs come with constantly changing schedules — a sixth of American workers have irregular schedules and about a third have income that changes month to month. And many of these jobs come without key benefits like paid sick leave or affordable health care. We’ve returned to work to find that the jobs available don’t give us enough to securely live on.
So, this year, American workers decided to use their collective power to improve conditions for themselves and their coworkers in one of the most effective ways possible: refusing to work until their employers met them at least halfway.
Perhaps the wave of strikes that most will remember was staged by teachers in red states. These teachers are fed up with rock-bottom education funding that has led to paltry salaries for them and their coworkers, a lack of decent teaching materials and falling apart classrooms, and an erosion in the quality of the education they can offer their students.
This year’s wave of strikes started with teachers in every county in West Virginia refusing to go to work in February, shutting down every school in the state. Then the outrage spread to four other states: Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky and Oklahoma. None of the teachers in these states are legally allowed to strike; still, they refused to go to work and instead swarmed their capitol buildings, and schools shut down during their protests.
In Oklahoma, where teachers walked off the job for nine days, school funding has fallen by over 28 percent during the last decade and teacher pay ranks at number 47 in the country. Oklahoma’s education outcomes have dropped alongside funding, with the state’s ranking falling from 17 in 2011 to 46. Arizona and West Virginia have also seen double-digit declines in funding as teacher pay wallows at the bottom of the national list. Yet in every state that saw a walkout, teachers won concessions on increased funding and/or pay before they returned to their classrooms.
Hotel Worker Strikes
Hotel workers have staged the largest series of strikes in their industry in the country’s history this year, according to the UNITE HERE union that represents them, and more may soon be on their way.
In May, 50,000 hospitality workers in Las Vegas at 34 casino resorts, which included both hotel employees as well as wait staff, bartenders and kitchen workers, authorized a citywide strike for the first time since 2002 over better pay and benefits, protection for immigrants, and other demands. In September, Chicago hotel workers did something similar, walking off the job in the first citywide strike in more than 100 years.
These actions were followed by months-long strikes staged by Marriott Hotel employees in cities around the country. In Boston, the Marriott action was the first major hotel strike the city has seen in modern history. In San Francisco, it was the largest such action since 2004. In Hawaii, it was the first major hotel strike since 1990. Marriott strikes also took place in Detroit, Oakland, San Diego and San Jose.
These workers haven’t just been demanding higher pay and better benefits. They have also fought — and secured — better protection from sexual harassment in an industry where a huge number say they experience unwanted nudity or touching from guests. The new protections include panic buttons they can press when they experience harassment from a guest while working alone.
Fast Food Strikes
Hotel workers aren’t the only workers fed up with sexual harassment and willing to go on strike over it. Employees at McDonald’s staged the country’s first-ever national strike against sexual harassment in September. After filing a federal complaint against the company in May alleging they were groped, propositioned and sexually assaulted on the job, they said they received no response from corporate headquarters, so they walked off the job in 10 cities across the country. While the #MeToo sexual harassment reckoning kicked off by The New York Times’s Harvey Weinstein exposé in 2017 has mostly focused on white-collar workplaces, fast food, like hospitality, is also an industry rife with abuse. In a 2016 survey, 40 percent of women in fast food said they had experienced unwanted sexual remarks, touching and assault.
The Fight for 15 movement has staged a series of escalating strikes in the fast food industry since 2012. The movement has now spread to other sectors, including hospital workers, child care providers, airport employees and adjunct professors. The movement staged another strike in October, but also pledged to go beyond walking off the job, enlisting its members in knocking doors in the hopes of influencing the midterm elections this year in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
In August and September, people incarcerated in prisons across 16 states staged work stoppages alongside other protests, such as hunger strikes and commissary boycotts. One of the prisoners’ top demands was an end to “prison slavery,” which is legal because of a loophole in the 13th Amendment of the Constitution. Prisoners can be paid just a few cents an hour — or even nothing at all — for labor that is sometimes mandatory.
Striking prisoners are demanding not just better pay, but also better conditions. Those in Angola prison in New Orleans have protested being made to work long hours in dangerous heat. Meanwhile, two prisoners died fighting fires in California this year. Yet courts have ruled that prisoners aren’t covered by workplace protections like health and safety standards or minimum wage requirements because they’re not technically employees.
A Labor Tipping Point?
All of this activity is particularly notable given how rare it is for American workers to decide to walk off the job in protest. There were just seven major work stoppages — or strikes involving 1,000 or more workers that lasted at least one shift — in 2017. This was the second-lowest number of strikes recorded since 1947 (the lowest number of strikes was in 2009). The seven strikes that took place in 2017 represented a major drop from the peak of 470 strikes in one year in 1952. (The 2018 numbers will be released next year.)
But the appetite for going on strike this year may be a sign of things to come. Now 7,500 hospitality workers at 24 hotels in California have voted to authorize strikes to demand they be paid $25 an hour to keep up with the cost of living in places like Los Angeles and Orange County, according to their union, UNITE HERE Local 11. Teachers in South Carolina are threatening an imminent strike over low pay and poor treatment, and teachers in Los Angeles will strike on January 10 if they can’t reach a contract agreement, which would be their first strike since 1989.
Workers’ power has been on a steady decline for decades as employers concentrate more and more power in their own hands. It leaves us with a smaller and smaller slice of the economic pie and working conditions that don’t respect our dignity and private lives. But we may now be at a tipping point where the American workforce isn’t willing to swallow that status quo any longer. Workers who went on strike this year didn’t just secure better pay and working conditions for themselves. They may be paving the way for others to follow and to raise standards across the economy.