Medium’s Steve LeVine thinks COVID-19 could start a huge push to organize
Steve LeVine is an Editor at Large at Medium with interests in ferreting out the whys for the turbulence all around us. Ex-Axios, ex-Quartz, ex-WSJ, ex-NYT, ex-FT.
In September 1945, a little-remembered frenzy erupted in the United States. Japan had surrendered, ending World War II, but American meat packers, steelworkers, telephone installers, telegraph operators, and auto assemblers had something different from partying in mind. In rolling actions, they went on strike. After years of patriotic silence on the home front, these workers, along with unhappy roughnecks, lumberjacks, railroad engineers, and elevator operators — some 6 million workers in all — shut down their industries and some entire cities. Mainly they were seeking higher pay — and they got it, averaging 18% increases.
The era of raucous labor is long past, and worker chutzpah along with it. That is, it was — until now. Desperately needed to staff the basic economy while the rest of us remain secluded from Covid-19, ordinarily little-noticed workers are wielding unusual leverage. Across the country, cashiers, truckers, nurses, burger flippers, stock replenishers, meat plant workers, and warehouse hands are suddenly seen as heroic, and they are successfully protesting. For the previous generation of labor, the goal post was the 40-hour week. New labor’s immediate aims are much more prosaic: a sensible face mask, a bottle of sanitizer, and some sick days.
The question is what happens next. Are we watching a startling but fleeting moment for newly muscular labor? Or, once the coronavirus is beaten, do companies face a future of vocal workers aiming to rebuild lost decades of wage increases and regained influence in boardrooms and the halls of power?
For now at least, some of the country’s most powerful CEOs are clearly nervous. Late last month, Apple, faced with reporters asking about a company decision to furlough hundreds of contract workers without pay, did a quick about-face. Those employees, Apple now said, would receive their hourly wages. A few weeks earlier, after Amazon warehouse workers demanded better benefits during the virus pandemic, that company also reversed course, offering paid sick days and unlimited unpaid time off.
The backdrop is a country at a standstill and uncertain over which businesses will survive the current economic shakeout, and in what form. With some notable exceptions, very few companies seem prepared to risk riling their employees, especially given broad popular support for workers at their grocery stores, nurses at their hospitals, and drivers who are keeping supply arteries open.
The past four decades have been perhaps labor’s weakest since the Industrial Age.
But if companies are responding to those who are protesting, they might also think ahead and preempt festering trouble down the road. “I like to believe people will say, ‘We treat these people as disposable, but they are pretty indispensable. Maybe we should do what we can to recognize their contribution,’” says David Autor, a labor economist at MIT and co-director of the school’s Work of the Future Task Force.
Until the 1980s, layoffs were barely a thing, writes Louis Uchitelle in The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences. Companies tended to avoid large-scale dismissals, because they violated a red line of publicly accepted practice and also could finger the company for blame. The United States was still in the age of company as community and societal patron, and even when workers went on strike, they were generally not replaced, because the optics would be bad.
But in 1981, President Ronald Reagan changed all that. Some 12,000 air traffic controllers went on strike, demanding higher pay and a shorter workweek. In a breathtaking decision, Reagan fired all but a few hundred of them. The Federal Labor Relations Authority decertified the controllers’ union entirely. The era of strong labor was over.
In the subsequent age of the no-excuses layoff, the number of major strikes has plunged. Starting in 1947, when the government began keeping such data, there were almost always anywhere from 200 to more than 400 big strikes every year. But in 1982, the year after the air traffic controllers debacle, the number for the first time fell below 100. In 2017, there were just seven. “There was damage to self-esteem every time there was a layoff. It took the militancy out of organized labor, and I don’t think it ever recovered,” Uchitelle says.
The past four decades have been perhaps labor’s weakest since the Industrial Age. For a half century, those working for hourly wages have won almost no real gains. The real average hourly wage in 2018 dollars adjusted for inflation was $22.65 in 2018, compared with $20.27 in 1964 — just an 11.7% gain, according to Pew Research. Real median hourly wages rose by only another 0.6% last year despite the sharp tightening of the job market and an increase in the minimum wage across the country, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The current revival of worker activism precedes Covid-19 in the unlikeliest of places. In 2018, West Virginia teachers, among the lowest paid in the nation and four years without a raise, went on strike for nine days in a demand for higher pay. That they won a 5% increase was one astonishing thing. But the walkout itself was stunning, specifically because of the state where it occurred — a former bedrock of ultramilitant coal miners who had repeatedly gone to actual war for better pay and safety but more recently were a bastion of worker passivity.
If teachers are an indicator of what is coming, Amazon, fast food restaurants, hospitals, and gig companies have a long, hot few years ahead.
Last year, the West Virginia teachers were on the picket lines again. This time, they stopped the state legislature from funding private schools in what they saw as an attempt to weaken their newly revived strength. Officials buckled after just a day. The strikes meanwhile spread to a dozen red and blue cities and states. Often wearing red shirts as the symbol of the strikes, the teachers were demanding more money — from 2000 to 2017, teachers’ real salaries actually shrunk by 1.6% nationally, according to the National Center for Health Statistics — as well as more supplies and help in the classroom. In Arizona, teachers won a 20% raise, and Los Angeles teachers won a 6% raise. That triggered more strikes through much of 2019, with Chicago teachers, for one, winning a 16% pay raise. Strikes seemed likely this year, too, in Detroit and Philadelphia, for starters.
If teachers are an indicator of what is coming, Amazon, fast food restaurants, hospitals, and gig companies have a long, hot few years ahead. On April 6 alone, the employees of a Los Angeles McDonald’s walked out when a co-worker was diagnosed positive for the coronavirus. For the second time in a month, workers at a Staten Island Amazon warehouse went on strike after 26 co-workers came down with the virus. And outside Chicago, employees of two plants walked out because management failed to immediately announce that co-workers had been diagnosed with Covid-19.
Across the country, workers are on the march over safety, pay, and sick days. The picture is jarring at a time when 16 million people are newly out of work. Companies and CEOs need to prepare for a new post-Covid-19 reality where workers will recognize their power — and use it.
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