Successes of Striketober and What It Means for Future of American Labor Movement

In a movement known as Striketober, more than 100,000 workers across the U.S. have or have threatened to go on strike this month, demanding higher wages, better working conditions, and dignity from corporations. The momentum for strikes in October had, in fact, been building up since the spring: the Great Resignation, viewed as a general strike by some economists, has seen an ongoing trend of fed-up employees voluntarily leaving their jobs amidst complications created by COVID-19, such as inadequate worker protection and wage stagnation. The labor shortage has thus provided workers with leverage against businesses for the first time in decades. Riding on the impetus of the Great Resignation, workers in Striketober are using this leverage to demand changes to current jobs instead of quitting. This unprecedented strike wave is not unique in scale—more than five million workers went on strike after World War II—but in its far-reaching scope, which includes historically uninvolved industries such as news, entertainment, and healthcare. 

In March, unions representing The New Yorker, Ars Technica, and Pitchfork workers voted to authorize strikes against their parent publications company, Condé Nast. Though a deal was reached in June, when Condé Nast agreed to a minimum $60,000 annual salary, increased health benefits, and defined working hours, contract negotiations spanned for as long as two years after The New Yorker Union threatened to strike. “Condé Nast has long profited off the exploitation of its workers, but that exploitation ends now,” the statement to authorize strikes read. 

Unions in other economic sectors echoed the determination shown in The New Yorker Union’s statement despite contract negotiation challenges. Since August, unionized employees at Nabisco, the maker of Oreos, Chips Ahoy!, and other snack foods, have gone on strikes in five states and were able to broker a new four-year contract in September. “This has been a long and difficult fight for our striking members, their families and our union,” acknowledged Anthony Shelton, president of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union. In one particular case, as striking workers blocked vehicles exiting vehicles from the Nabisco plant, contentious actions led to several injuries. Another recent October strike saw 10,000 unionized John Deere employees walk out and form picket lines in protest for worker benefits. “The company is reaping such rewards, but we’re fighting over crumbs here,” Chris Laursen, a John Deere worker, said, referring to the company’s record-high revenue projection of nearly $6 billion this year. The United Automobile Workers union has also reached a tentative deal with Deere & Company that includes better pension benefits to be approved by union members. Meanwhile, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employee (IATSE), a union representing roughly 60,000 film and television workers, reached a landmark tentative deal with producers after issuing its first strike authorization in history. “This is a Hollywood ending,” the union president Matthew Loeb said in a written statement. 

The aforementioned strikes represent only a few from this calendar year that reflect American workers’ discontent with growing inequality and wage stagnation in a wide range of industries. Although there are not nearly as many strikes as there were decades ago—Cornell’s Labor Action Tracker has only tracked 268 strikes as of October 30 in 2021, while there were 5,716 strikes in 1971 alone—union approval ratings are increasing. According to a July Gallup Poll, 68 percent of Americans approve of labor unions, a significant increase from the 48 percent exhibited in 2009 during the Great Recession. 

Nevertheless, even with unions achieving worker-approved deals and the exceptionally high pro-union sentiment, substantial national changes to workers’ conditions are not guaranteed. The Nabisco strike, for instance, still allowed the company to pay weekend shifts with lower wages. In another, more direct case, nurses at the Saint Vincent Hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts have gone on the longest healthcare strike in the state’s history, demanding higher nurse-to-patient ratio after being overworked for 19 months during the pandemic. Yet the Department of Unemployment Assistance has denied unemployment benefits to the 700 striking nurses, forcing many nurses to move on or switch to new jobs without affecting any change. Thus, while Striketober and the Great resignation has offered unprecedented leverage for workers and reflects the power of labor in a tight economy, the situation may not directly translate to widespread and lasting progress in the larger context of the American labor movement.