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3 reasons labor strikes are surging right now — and why they could continue to grow

A truck hauls a piece of John Deere equipment from the factory past workers picketing outside the John Deere Davenport Works facility on Oct. 15 in Davenport, Iowa. More than 10,000 John Deere employees, represented by the UAW, walked off the job in mid-October after failing to agree to the terms of a new contract.
Scott Olson
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A truck hauls a piece of John Deere equipment from the factory past workers picketing outside the John Deere Davenport Works facility on Oct. 15 in Davenport, Iowa. More than 10,000 John Deere employees, represented by the UAW, walked off the job in mid-October after failing to agree to the terms of a new contract.

Thousands of workers across the U.S. are on strike, demanding better wages, better working conditions and more benefits.

In what some have called "Striketober," workers in factories as well as the health care and food industries have either started or authorized strikes in the past month.

It comes after more than a year of working during the pandemic and as millions of workers are quitting in what has been named the "Great Resignation."

Joseph McCartin is a professor of history and the director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University. He spoke with NPR's All Things Considered about why so many American workers seem to be either striking or threatening to strike.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Interview highlights

Ailsa Chang: Why exactly are we seeing so many strikes right now in particular?

McCartin: One [reason] is that workers have just come through the pandemic and the economy is just beginning to improve. And usually, after a big crisis and when things begin to improve, workers can become more militant.

I think the fact that this has coincided with the "Great Resignation" is also crucial because we've seen a tremendous upsurge in workers quitting jobs in the private sector. And that's unusual. In August, we set a record for such quits, and what I think that shows is there's a broad dissatisfaction that workers feel and that's giving workers who are organized more leverage.

The third thing is that people see now that they have an administration in power that's really openly siding with workers and even taking positions in support of strikes. It's very unusual for Cabinet members to visit strike picket lines.

Could that mean that we will be seeing even more strikes soon?

Strikes tend to breed strikes. If workers see that strikes are being effective, they're more likely to use the strike weapon.

What makes this current wave of strikes significant or unique?

I think one of the things that makes it unique is the post-pandemic context. The pandemic disrupted a lot of the status quo and labor management relations in a way that only happened, I think, three times in the 20th century — after both of the world wars and during the Great Depression. It was in each of those cases, by the way, that we saw a big upsurge in worker militancy.

When the status quo gets upended, it changes workers' expectations. Coming out of World War II, workers had made sacrifices and they wanted rewards after the war. I think a similar feeling pervades the American workforce today. A lot of people sacrificed a lot in the past year — the essential workers, for example — and yet they're looking at a labor market that they feel still doesn't reward them as they feel they ought to be rewarded.

Do you think workers actually do have more leverage at this moment?

They actually do have more leverage right now, and part of that has to do with the "Great Resignation," which is showing discontent that is tightening the labor market.

What's unique about this moment is there is a labor shortage that many employers are complaining about, but it's a labor shortage that is largely worker driven. Workers have been withdrawing from the labor market in dissatisfaction with the jobs they currently have.

We still haven't returned to the job levels we had before the recession; we're about 80% of what we had before COVID struck.

Could this "Striketober" stretch into a months-long wave and have maybe even long-term impacts?

It could. It could last for quite a while. The militancy that came up after World War II went on for more than a year, and it did have long-term consequences. The same thing after World War I.

And what happened in those cases, especially after World War I — employers started to realize from the postwar strike militancy that workers weren't as happy as they thought that they were, and that the jobs needed to be improved and employers needed to get on that program and make some improvements. So, we could possibly see that.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alejandra Marquez Janse
Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.

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