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Widespread Discontent Drove Labor’s Advances in the Private Sector in 2021

The resurgence of the U.S. labor movement remains nascent, but working-class power is beginning to regain its footing.

A union worker holds a strike sign as he pickets with nurses outside of the Kaiser Permanente San Francisco Medical Center on November 10, 2021, in San Francisco, California.

For the labor movement in the United States, 2021 was a year defined by the opening of new fronts. Though embattled and widely disempowered, U.S. workers and union organizers have taken up new mantles. Labor militancy has flared in response to both novel pressures and age-old antagonisms. The unique stressors of the COVID-19 pandemic further destabilized already-fractious arrangements — the grievances of the U.S. working class were mounting long before March 2020, a function of the decades of stagnation and austerity that have been imposed by concentrated private power.

Waves of protests and resignations signaled widespread disenchantment with the exploitative and authoritarian world of work, in a year that was regularly punctuated by organized action: 2021 saw groundbreaking union drives at Amazon and Starbucks, repeated assertions of power by health care workers, prolonged fights at John Deere and Warrior Met Coal, and strikes at Kellogg’s, Nabisco, Frito-Lay and many more. Film and television industry employees, carpenters, teachers, telecom workers, graduate students, video game developers, aerospace engineers — 2021 was remarkable for the diversity of sectors in which the stirrings of collective action either reawakened or arose for the first time.

That said, advances remain tentative. It’s true that this year’s labor struggles played out across an unusually broad array of industries, but this variety belied the comparatively small scope of the 2021 “strike wave,” as it was deemed by many. The number of workers engaged in collective action fell short of the highs of recent years, as did the number of new union election filings. Recalcitrant energies are building, but they have yet to be organized, structured and channeled by a labor movement in which membership rates have long been in precipitous decline.

The present juncture contains contradictory realities: The U.S. labor movement is both severely constrained and newly revitalized. Unions are wracked with internal tension while also extending solidarities; employees have both attained new leverage and shouldered new burdens. Decades of wage stagnation and incapacitated (or complacent, or outright corrupt) labor institutions have produced the conditions for rupture. The potential of such a resurgence remains unrealized — but 2021 offered conspicuous indications that this potential, critically, is being rekindled.

Essential Work for Unlivable Pay

The pandemic has, of course, drastically perturbed the conditions of the American workplace. COVID has often been portrayed as something of a crucible for rising labor antagonism. This is true in many respects, though the current conditions have deeper roots. The isolating first months of the pandemic limited collective activity of all kinds, with strike rates slowing accordingly — though workers still engaged in individual walkouts and similar reactive gestures (up to 1,200 by one count), often in response to safety concerns. Such acts of protest in the first year of the pandemic — both coordinated strikes and stochastic non-union actions — foreshadowed the demonstrations of discontent that were still to come.

Since the onset of COVID-19, corporate profits have attained record heights. Alongside a 70 percent increase in billionaire fortunes and a sustained trend of vast pay disparities, prevailing conditions have had a way of underscoring the grotesquely distended inequality of our modern Gilded Age. The asymmetry of suffering throughout the pandemic was in evidence as workers continued to face long hours and low pay, in addition to new on-the-job risks and pressures like understaffing. Those who toiled for poverty wages listened as they were praised as “essential,” lauded as “heroes.” (It was not lost on many that the latter term implies self-sacrifice.) If they were so essential, workers rightly concluded, then why were wages still a pittance, their pressing safety concerns either going unheard or inviting retaliation?

The dissonance between this rhetoric and the on-the-job sense of disposability became impossible to ignore. As Jonah Furman and Gabriel Winant wrote in The Intercept: “The ‘essential’ worker — a new category of worker born of the coronavirus pandemic — challenges the boss to make good on that designation.” Still, while the mounting contradictions have helped effect a shift in consciousness, workers “are not particularly organized … union density [is] at a historical nadir.”

As a result, much of the long-stirring mass discontentment instead found expression in atomized acts of resistance. Employees began to quit en masse, at an unprecedented pace — a record 4.3 million in August, by a Bureau of Labor Statistics count. Quit rates are particularly high in hospitality, retail and health care, in a clear correspondence with pandemic risk. What has been termed “The Great Resignation” is the product of untenable workplace strains, which have been accentuated — though not necessarily instigated — by COVID.

It’s critical to point out, as Kim Moody did in an article for the Marxist journal Spectre, that the quit rate has in fact been rising steadily since 2009, long before the pandemic. An analysis by Gallup similarly ventured that “The Great Resignation” is perhaps more aptly termed “The Great Discontent.” Recent resignations are only symptomatic — indicating workers’ “job dissatisfaction” and an increasing “confidence to act” in response to their circumstances, as Moody described it.

This “Great Resignation” has tightened the labor market: There are now more job openings (October saw a high of 11 million), and fewer workers willing to fill them. Accordingly, workers, aware they’ve become less replaceable, now find themselves in a newly advantageous position. Many have been empowered to fight for piecemeal change in their workplaces by agitating for better wages and tips, workplace safety and improved flexibility. Throughout 2020 and 2021, low-paid workers have regularly walked off the job or otherwise protested at a number of non-union employers, including major fast food outlets, Walmart, Instacart, Dollar General, and other companies infamous for paltry wages and trying conditions. Some of these flashes of dissent were hastily met with appeasement, as major corporations, including McDonald’s and Walmart, as well as CVS, Walgreens, Costco and Chipotle, announced wage increases to ensure they could retain their labor force.

Supply chain disruptions have further strengthened workers’ position; increased consumer spending and a shortage of logistics workers have strained the nation’s fragile “just-in-time” delivery model and equipped labor with another fulcrum for exerting leverage against employers. The counterpart to these hiring difficulties, unfortunately, means that the still-employed are increasingly overworked to make up the difference.

But scattered wins for scattered workforces, diffuse acts of protest and angry resignations are not the same thing as collective working-class power. Writing in Dissent, Nelson Lichtenstein distinguishes between organizing and these disparate reactions: “Non-union workers, no matter how aggrieved, do not go on strike. They can quit their job, even walk out together for a shift or two, but in the absence of some independent organization, almost always a trade union, their protest soon dissolves.” The deep ebb of union density has precluded opportunities for more impactful, coordinated actions. There remains much organizing work to be done. “Still, compared with the lethargy labor has shown for decades, there was a definite twitch — perceptible maybe more in the feeling than in the hard numbers,” as Alexandra Bradbury put it in Labor Notes.

“Where workers are organized collectively into unions, tight labor markets lead to rising willingness to confront employers over the terms and conditions of employment, instead of just looking for a better deal elsewhere,” continued Furman and Winant. “In other words, the same forces making work intolerable for so many — not enough workers and too much work — are simultaneously preparing workers to fight back.” Rather than unfocused energies that dissipate in sporadic walkouts, unionization facilitates the constructive, sustained development of worker power.

A Strike Wave of Sorts

Expressions of that sustained energy were on full display in 2021 as strikes proliferated across a wide span of industries. In his article for Spectre, Moody tabulated 194 through November — over twice the totals of earlier years, and nearly triple the 66 that occurred in 2020. Yet with that increase comes a caveat: While strikes were numerous, the number of total strikers this year (73,000) didn’t approach the hundreds of thousands in 2018 and 2019 that took action during the General Motors and nationwide teachers’ strikes — earlier fights that had helped turn up the earth in fields that had long lain fallow.

2021, rather, was notable for an increase not in the numerical extent of labor actions, but in their breadth: Of Moody’s total count of 194 strikes, 124 took place at non-education, non-health care private-sector employers. (Bureau of Labor Statistics data only documents strikes of over 1,000 workers, so the true scale of collective action can be obscured; Moody’s analysis incorporated actions with fewer participants. Furthermore, measuring individual acts of resistance that don’t necessarily constitute traditional, authorized strikes can offer perspective on rising workplace antagonisms, if not the precise contours of organized labor. Using these broader metrics, the Labor Action Tracker, a project of Cornell University, tallied more than 300 on-the-job actions over the past year.)

Still, the common media characterization of the events of 2021 as a “strike wave” (commentators also coined the moniker “Striketober” to describe an especially sharp uptick in the fall) has been borne out only in one particular sense: Strikes have spread to new sectors. The overall number of workers involved in 2021’s “Striketober” (22,000) doesn’t compare to the 85,000 of October 2019. Further contradicting the strike wave narrative was the sobering revelation that, despite the expansion into new sectors, the total number of organizing election petition filings had actually fallen to a record low by the year’s close. Flourishing militancy did not reliably translate into collective power.

As union organizer and analyst C.M. Lewis writes, while the “strike wave” is in some ways overstated, it’s still the case that “private sector strike activity is not only growing, it’s spreading throughout the economy in a fashion largely unseen in over a decade.” Despite this growth, there remain untapped opportunities: In 2021, 450 union contracts covering 200 or more workers expired — critical hinge points that, nevertheless, went largely uncontested, a sign that further organization is needed. However, as 2022 begins, conditions are still primed for labor militancy. The expiration of hundreds of additional contracts in the coming year portends continued clashes between workers and their bosses.

In an interview with Verso Books, Jonah Furman provided a nuanced view on the upswell of strikes:

Now one way to understand that [discrepancy between low overall numbers and the term “strike wave”] is simply that there’s a very low level of labor literacy and the media was looking for a story and found one; hype, in other words. Another way to understand it, though, is that a “strike wave” isn’t just about arithmetic; you don’t just add up the number of workers on strike … What’s notable about this fall is that the strikes are being connected to a political and social moment … So even if the quantity of strikes doesn’t compare to previous moments, the quality of the strikes feels politically and socially relevant.

Battling the Two-Tier Contract

Beyond those generalized connections to the sociopolitical moment, the labor struggles of 2021 displayed more specific commonalities. A number of critical fights shared a pressure point: the two-tier contract model. “Two-tier” refers to a pay and benefits plan in which different subsets of employees are remunerated under separate contracts. Existing employees often receive preferential terms, while the contract stipulates that future employees will receive a less favorable package. These arrangements transparently serve the interests of management; their purpose (beyond saving on staffing costs) is to divide workforces against themselves by introducing competing incentives. Refusals to give up contractual ground reflected labor’s escalating audacity: Opposition to two-tier contracts had particular purchase in 2021, and, on many occasions, unions readily rejected concessionary proposals — including tentative agreements reached by the union’s own leaders.

One of more well-publicized conflicts took place at legacy manufacturer John Deere. The company enjoyed a year of multibillion-dollar profits and bestowed its shareholders and executives with exorbitant handouts, while workers were offered minuscule increases. The new contract also proposed the addition of a third tier (to an already two-tier plan) that would have denied pensions to new employees. In response, its United Auto Workers (UAW)-represented workforce voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike. (A two-tier plan was also a key driver of the major UAW strike at General Motors in 2019.) Throughout October, the over 10,000 John Deere workers held out against two offers. It is highly significant that the rank-and-file repudiated concessions that had been negotiated by UAW higher-ups: a sign of their increasing militancy. After five weeks, members accepted a third agreement that preserved the pension and established a retirement health care fund, although the final contract did not undo the standing multi-tier system that has been in place since 1997.

The membership rebellion at John Deere was reflective of roiling internal tensions at major unions, including the United Auto Workers. Systemic corruption amidst top leadership has plagued the UAW; scandals range from embezzlement to selling out workers by accepting bribes from management over contract terms. It’s for reasons like these that the union democracy movement advocates for increased rank-and-file involvement in decision-making and the direct election of leadership. Proponents of union democracy, organized in groups like the Association for Union Democracy, seek to reform union structures that have become increasingly hierarchical, allowing powerful leadership to make decisions that can be misaligned with the wishes and interests of the rank-and-file. In some unions, Electoral College-like voting systems can override majorities and prop up autocratic “one-party rule.” Years of organizing by pro-union democracy elements in the UAW rank-and-file culminated this December in the passage of a referendum that will allow for direct elections, instituting a “one member, one vote” system. Another internal sea change also occurred within the Teamsters, the nation’s largest private-sector union. A slate backed by union democracy advocates, Teamsters United, swept leadership elections late 2021; this new administration has announced intentions to unite the rank-and-file, confront two-tier at UPS — and take on Amazon.

A two-tier proposal, along with brutal working conditions, also drove the 2021 Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers’ (BCTGM) strike at Nabisco. It began with a familiar story: The brand’s multibillion-dollar holding company Mondelēz had a banner year, and its CEO was pampered with a $42.4 million pay package. Meanwhile, deteriorating conditions, low pay, burdensome concession demands and the threat of outsourcing prompted a union response. A walkout at a facility in Portland, Oregon, rang in a coordinated strike across five states, with every Nabisco production and distribution facility in the country taking part. The five-week strike concluded with the acceptance of an improved contract, but some workers remained unsatisfied with the compromise. BCTGM locals also struck for 19 days at a Frito-Lay plant in Topeka, Kansas, and then at four facilities owned by processed food giant Kellogg’s. A two-tier contract was the operative concern in the latter 11-week strike, which became the subject of significant national attention and spurred consumer boycotts. Once more, tentative agreements were reached that addressed workers’ demands, though not without compromise.

Resignations made for a lack of workers across industries, but it was in the health care field that understaffing was a particularly trenchant concern. The pressures of COVID and overwork have led to soaring dropout rates in the profession — and understaffing was at crisis levels even before the pandemic. Many employees at major health care provider Kaiser Permanente are represented by a 21-union, 52,000-worker coalition called the Alliance of Healthcare Unions. When the Alliance authorized a strike in fall of 2021, they made it clear that understaffing was of central importance. Kaiser (which had raked in billions in just that quarter) proffered a two-tier contract, which union members contended would exacerbate the crisis by making it more difficult to attract new hires. Management had been attempting to mitigate the insufficient staff levels by hiring temporary “travel nurses” and reassigning managers to patient treatment, some of whom were less than optimally trained. (The risks of this strategy to patients are self-evident.) But labor’s power was rapidly asserted: Faced with walkouts on a vast scale, Kaiser management capitulated in advance of the strike.

While the Kaiser strike threat was enormous in scope, it was only one of many labor skirmishes in health care this year, most revolving around the same issues. Concerns over safe staffing ratios also drove workers at Mercy Hospital in Buffalo, New York, to initiate a strike in October; there, too, the overseeing Catholic Health network had sought to introduce a two-tier system. Employees of St. Vincent Hospital in Massachusetts, part of the gigantic for-profit Tenet Health corporation, and Washington State’s Cascade Behavioral Health Center also struck last year over inadequate staffing and safety conditions.

At the Warrior Met Coal company in Alabama, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) have been on strike since April 1. Contract negotiations had broken down as workers lost benefits that they had had under previous employer Walter Energy, which went bankrupt in 2016 and was bought by Warrior Met. Workers sacrificed overtime pay and health care coverage, often taking on 12-hour shifts up to seven days a week, including holidays. Management, which had been granted large bonuses, confronted the striking workers with judicial action barring their pickets. Their attacks on the picket line extended into outright violence, including instances of vehicular assault — committed by company employees — that allegedly injured multiple picketers. Local police “have shown little or no interest in pursuing the perpetrators,” the union contends. As of this writing, the UMWA remains on strike.

The list goes on. Significantly, a vote to form the first unions at corporate-owned Starbucks stores took place in Buffalo, New York. Those efforts were quickly met with familiar management surveillance and intimidation — but the union was won. (Starbucks CEO and one-time presidential candidate Howard Schultz, displaying his characteristic tact, found that development grim enough to invoke the Holocaust.)

In October, after having authorized a strike, members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) reached a tentative agreement with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers for “reasonable rest periods; meal breaks; a living wage for those on the bottom of the pay scale; and significant increases in compensation to be paid by new-media companies,” the union reported. However, a large contingent of the rank-and-file was displeased with the eventual agreement — thanks to the IATSE’s delegate system (in which elected union officers ostensibly represent worker interests, instead of allowing members a direct vote), it was ratified against the majority. It is this type of dilution of the rank-and-file’s interest that the union democracy movement is dedicated to contesting.

Much as “essential workers” have reconsidered their relation to their employers, a shift in self-perception has also occurred in academia. Despite pushback from the administrations of Columbia, Harvard, New York University, the University of California system, and elsewhere, graduate student employees at those schools have come to view themselves as not only pupils but also “essential” employees — and drastically overworked, sub-minimum-wage employees at that. A new rush of organizing among private-school graduate students (including, notably, 17,000 University of California student researchers) made up another distinct facet of labor’s 2021 upsurge, indicative of labor’s widening mobilization.

Some further examples: After picketing for a single day, Oregon’s United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 555, representing employees of the Kroger-owned Fred Meyer and QFC chains, won a tentative agreement with “significant wage increases, added workplace protections, a secure retirement and quality healthcare.” California telecom workers with the Communications Workers of America launched an Unfair Labor Practice strike in early October. School bus drivers went on strike across three Maryland counties to protest driver shortages, pay and conditions. The UAW struck and reached a deal at a Volvo truck plant in Norfolk, Virginia, while the Northwest Carpenters Union struggled for cost-of-living wage increases in Seattle, winning moderate improvements. Employees of major video game publisher Activision Blizzard took initial steps toward organizing with the Communications Workers of America, a rarity for that industry. Nursing home workers with an SEIU local won gains with threats of a strike in Connecticut; Air Engineering Metal Trades Council (AEMTC) aerospace engineers contested unfair labor practices in Tennessee. Again, this is only a sampling. At 194 actions (by Kim Moody’s count), the cross-sector strike activity of 2021 was far too expansive to relate here in its entirety.

Taking on a Giant in Bessemer

The labor struggle that was the subject of the most feverish attention this year was one that culminated, at least for now, in a loss: Amazon crushed a Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) organizing drive at its facility in Bessemer, Alabama, living up to the company’s reputation for ruthlessness. The media coverage was warranted: Even the smallest union at an Amazon facility in the U.S. would serve as a nucleation site for further efforts to arm workers against the titanic exploiter, potentially allowing organizing efforts to propagate throughout its 400,000 operations workers across the nation. Accordingly, the bosses feared it like nothing else.

Once the RWDSU began its efforts to organize the Bessemer facility, the (largely Black) workforce was harried by incessant anti-union agitation, multiple texts a day (“We don’t believe that you need to pay someone to speak for you or that you need to pay dues for what you already get for free,” read one example), constant monitoring and surveillance and captive-audience anti-union propaganda sessions. Amazon management had no qualms about issuing threats to cut benefits or close the warehouse, or about telling outright lies — claiming untruthfully that, with a union, employees wouldn’t be allowed to file complaints with managers, and that “RWDSU’s goal was to raise money to pay for union leaders’ cars and meals.” (It’s indicative of the degraded state of U.S. labor law that such manipulative union-busting tactics are largely legal.)

RWDSU charges that Amazon is negligent on health and safety, both regarding pandemic measures and as a result of the company’s punishing warehouse environment. Granted bare-minimum break times, warehouse workers regularly pass out from overheating and suffer injuries and mental health episodes, up to and including suicidal ideationas the company is well aware. The “unbearable pace of work,” as the RWDSU describes it, results from Amazon’s devotion to rapid just-in-time logistics. Across Amazon’s empire, deaths are not uncommon. Recently, employees at an Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville, Illinois, were forced to remain on the job during a tornado, resulting in six deaths. As labor journalist Kim Kelly has reported, six workers also died at the Bessemer warehouse in the last year alone.

In Bessemer, Amazon hired police to intimidate organizers, and went as far as to work with Alabama’s Jefferson County to change the timing on a stoplight to prevent union organizers from speaking to workers while the light was red. (This accusation by the RWDSU was later corroborated by a county official who spoke to labor outlet More Perfect Union.) When the time of the election arrived, Amazon management also worked with the U.S. Postal Service to install their own on-site mailbox to gather ballots, giving, at minimum, the impression of a surveilled vote. In the end, the union was voted down, a result indisputably swayed by management intimidation and interference. However, that end was not final. The RWDSU charged undue influence, and a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) hearing officer issued a recommendation that concurred. Based on those findings, the NLRB ruled in November that, because of the mailbox and other interference, the election must be run again. This series of events at Amazon reflects the labor movement’s at-once embattled and empowered state: Though assailed by some of the nation’s most powerful interests, facing lopsided disadvantages, workers remain in the fight.

New Potential in the Same Old Struggle

2021, for all the cross-sector conflict that has flared up like brush fires across the country, concluded with austerity well in place, with inequality deeply engraved and with capital still lording its power over the working class. Resistance may be growing, but missed opportunities abounded: Uncontested contract renewals and the dismally low number of new union election filings indicate that institutional labor strategy has not been able to take full advantage of the churning discontent.

“Unfortunately,” wrote labor strategist Jane McAlevey in The Nation, “most national unions squandered 2021 by prioritizing behind-the-scenes jockeying for access to the Biden administration and crumbs from the bosses’ table.”

Corrupt or sclerotic conservative leaderships, as in the UAW, have defused rank-and-file energies and negotiated concessionary contracts. Neal Meyer wrote in The Call that membership militancy has not “received much support from labor leaders. Caught unaware — and in some cases caught negotiating contracts that their more rebellious rank-and-file members then bravely rejected and struck against — conservative union leaders have predictably refused to fan the flames of a labor rebellion.” But promisingly, the direct-democracy referendum and the new leadership slate in the UAW and the Teamsters, respectively, hint at shifts in these internal power relations.

More broadly, the resources of many unions are simply too limited to instrumentalize members’ newly radical orientation, especially given the overwhelming power of the bosses. The viciousness with which Amazon confronted the Bessemer union drive is hardly exceptional: Anti-union intimidation and harassment remain the norm. Yet capital’s kneejerk hostility speaks to the power of collective action. Despite the fact that resistance is still inchoate and that vast obstacles remain, the momentum of gathering discontent looks poised to carry the movement far beyond the disruptions catalyzed by COVID.

As Moody writes, there is every “reason to believe that strike action and militancy in general will continue if we understand the ‘uptick’ of 2018-2021 as the result not only of pandemic and conjunctural conditions, but of the accumulation of grievances over a long period.”

The immiserations of the neoliberal era — the vast profiteering by capital, its unwillingness to provide fair wages and humane workplaces — has ratcheted up the fundamental contradictions between labor and management, sowing the seeds of resistance. To working people, the relationship between the gilded excess of capital and their own dispossession has become increasingly transparent.

For workers to continue to capitalize on these shifting dynamics will demand that ambient discontent is channeled into concerted organizing — but 2021 has shown clear signs that the process of galvanization has begun, as labor brandishes power in long-organized sectors and lays foundations in new ones. The resurgence of the U.S. union remains nascent, but it’s apparent that — however tentatively — working-class power is beginning to find its footing once again.