Strikes in the US by workers frustrated and tired from working long hours during the pandemic

Exhausted after working long hours during the covid pandemic and resentful that their bosses do not share profits, sometimes huge, tens of thousands of nurses, factory employees and other workers go on strike across the United States.

Some 31,000 employees of the Kaiser Permanente healthcare group in the western states of California and Oregon are set to go on strike.

As of Thursday, 10,000 employees at the John Deere farm machinery company have been on strike, while 1,400 workers left their jobs at Kellogg’s cereal company on October 5. And more than 2,000 employees at Mercy Hospital in Buffalo, New York, went on strike on October 1.

In Hollywood, a strike was avoided at the last minute that threatened to paralyze the film industry since Monday thanks to an agreement on the working conditions of technical employees, the main union in the sector announced this Sunday.

But beyond this agreement, the sudden wave of labor unrest this month led some to coin the word "striketober" (October strike), a neologism adopted on social media even by progressive Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Pandemic sacrifices

The workers argue that during the pandemic they had to bear an additional burden to compensate for the work of those who stayed at home.

"We sacrificed time with our families, we missed ball games with our kids, and dinners and weddings, to keep cereal boxes on the shelves."said Dan Osborn, a Kellogg’s mechanic for 18 years.

"And this is how they pay us? Asking us to make concessions at times when CEOs and executives receive raises in their compensation?"

Osborn, president of a local branch of the Bakers, Confectioners, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers (BCTGM) union, said they oppose a two-tier pay system that leaves some new hires earning far less than the rest.

"We are not asking for salary increases" and employees don’t mind long work hours, he said.

But they are opposed to some workers earning less for the same task and to removing automatic wage adjustments for inflation, he added.

"The strike will last as long as it takes"Osborn said. "All we have to do is hold out one day longer than the company".

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Contagious success

Most of the strikes are motivated by demands for better working conditions, said Kate Bronfenbrenner, a specialist in labor and union issues at Cornell University, New York.

"Businesses are making more profits than ever, and workers are being pressured to work harder than ever, sometimes risking their lives to get back to work in the context of covid.", said.

So when employers refuse to commit, he added, "workers are less willing to ratify contracts that they feel do not meet their needs".

It is difficult to know the exact number of strikes in progress, as the government only tracks those that affect more than 1,000 employees.

But "the more strikes are successful, the more strikes follow, because workers begin to believe that they can really earn something and are willing to risk not being paid, losing their job"said Josh Murray, a sociology professor at Vanderbilt University.

The Kellogg’s strike followed another strike in July by 600 workers at the Frito-Lay sandwich factory, a subsidiary of PepsiCo, in Kansas.

That 19-day strike resulted in weekly time off and pay increases.

And after a five-week strike by 1,000 employees at the snack factory Nabisco, a subsidiary of the giant Mondelez International, the firm abandoned a two-tier pay plan.

Social movements

For many workers, the pandemic has been an empowering moment.

"Some workers started to see that, ‘Oh wow, we’re actually essential, the economy is shutting down without us.’"Murray said.

Unions have also benefited in recent years from growing social movements with similar interests, such as when an Arizona hotel workers union allied with immigrant groups.

But Murray doesn’t expect companies to give up easily.

"Eventually there will be a reaction", said. "Corporations are not in the business of giving away or letting labor costs rise".

The current dynamics reflects something that economists and sociologists have seen over time, Murray said: "The tighter the labor market, the more powerful the workforce, the more likely there are to be strikes".

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