2021 Year In Review: The Only Way Out Is Through
2021 reminds me of a riddle: What’s worse than finding a worm in your apple? Finding half a worm in your apple. What’s scarier than a year of pandemic? A second year of pandemic.
We’re on new terrain, but labor is finding its footing. This was the year of a sudden “labor shortage,” the year everyone learned the phrase “supply chain problems”—and also the year that many who had been called “essential” saw how quickly they went, in the words of Kellogg’s striker Trevor Bidelman, “from heroes to zeros.”
We saw especially private sector workers in various industries, both union and nonunion, animated by a fresh sense of confidence, defiance, and being just plain fed up. The results gave us genuine cause for optimism—including major turning points in union reform and a bumper crop of strikes.
While we celebrate this year’s strikes, though, we should be sober about how few they were. By the numbers, 2021 had nothing on any year from the 1930s through the 1980s. If some workers were buoyed with a new spirit, plenty more were beaten down and demoralized.
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. Strikers were emboldened by the tight labor market, pushed to their limits by understaffing, and indignant at employers’ naked opportunism. And there was a surge in public sympathy for workplace militancy, even a hunger for it—just look how fast the “Striketober” hype caught on.
HIGHS AND LOWS
Teamsters at the Hunts Point produce market in the Bronx started the year with a bang: a six-day strike that doubled their raise. But the spring’s biggest labor story was a defeat—the union drive at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama.
Aside from Amazon’s tampering with a ballot drop box—which was severe enough that the Labor Board has ordered a new election—its tactics were as appalling as they were typical. The company forced workers to sit through captive-audience meetings, bombarded them with text messages, and plastered the warehouse with Vote No signs, even in the urinals.
This intense battery of pressure has become the union-busting standard. That’s because, unless workers are very well organized and prepared, it works. Unusual and encouraging, though, was the national attention paid—reflecting Amazon’s major role in our economy, but also a public appetite for labor victories.
Amazon is likely to remain our movement’s white whale for years to come. But the two most promising signs are the shop floor network that Amazonians United is organizing based on direct action to win shop floor gains like access to drinking water, and the election of a tough-talking new Teamsters leadership (more on that later).
Meanwhile, the two longest strikes of the year kicked off in March and April, each featuring workers squaring off against soulless capitalist giants—St. Vincent nurses in Massachusetts vs. Tenet, one of the largest for-profit hospital chains, and Warrior Met coal miners in Alabama vs. a clique of hedge funds. Both strikes are still on.
April is also when a police officer in the Twin Cities killed a young man named Daunte Wright, sparking the latest round of protest against the wanton destruction of Black lives. When the National Guard set up shop in a labor federation hall, Twin Cities labor activists mobilized fast to kick them out. Later in the year a group of Black labor leaders in Chicago helped win police accountability legislation. But overall, as people flowed into the streets to rage against one killing after another, organized labor continued to play little role in a major social movement of our time.
‘THIS IS OUR CHANCE!’
The strikes really started heating up when members of the Bakery Workers (BCTGM) struck at Frito-Lay (July) and Nabisco. The Frito-Lay strike captured themes we were hearing everywhere: Meager pay. Soul-crushing overwork. And workers grabbing hold of their new power.
“Everybody can go and get a second job,” Frito-Lay worker Chantel Mendenhall said one of her co-workers kept saying. “You can’t walk 10 feet without seeing 20 hiring signs. This is the one and only chance we might have! And they can’t hire people, they can’t get anybody to come in the door, there’s no way they can replace us!”
The Nabisco strikers continued the revolt against 12-hour days, but also planted a flag against two-tier—another theme we saw popping up over and over. Two more BCTGM strikes followed, both still ongoing, by workers who make Kellogg’s cereal and the cakes for Baskin Robbins.
One of the boldest strikes this year was a self-organized August walkout by mental health workers, mainly immigrants from East Africa, at Cascade Behavioral Health near Seattle, fed up with dangerous understaffing (the last straw was a patient attack that sent a worker out on a stretcher).
Management charged their union with an illegal wildcat because they hadn’t given 10 days’ notice. But SEIU 1199NW leaders backed up their members—and so did the regional Labor Board director, who refused to issue a complaint against the union, perhaps the first time the agency has blessed a safety strike in health care.
September saw multiple strikes: Heaven Hill distillery workers in Kentucky, telecom workers at Frontier, and carpenters in Seattle, where a rank-and-file movement to reject a fourth tentative agreement finally pushed a reluctant leadership off the dime.
Headlining Striketober were 10,000 John Deere factory workers across the Midwest. They did the working class proud—raising the banner against two-tier and demonstrating picket-line militancy that worked. Mass pickets created a three-hour backup of traffic as salaried workers attempted to enter the plants. Deere responded by getting an injunction: only four picketers per gate, no burn barrels, no chairs. Picketing is legal so long as it isn’t effective!
Mercy Hospital workers in Buffalo struck for five weeks and won their top demand: staffing ratios. Taxi drivers in New York City went on hunger strike and won $100 million in debt relief. Columbia University graduate employees struck not once but twice.
Teachers in Scranton, Pennsylvania, walked out for 12 days, but they were unusual. K-12 teachers, the banner-carriers behind so many of the major strikes of the past decade, didn’t strike much this year—instead fighting on-the-job battles against exhaustion and stress.
‘WE ALL QUIT’
And then there were the almost-strikes: University of California lecturers, Kaiser Permanente health care workers, and film and TV crew members publicly came to the brink of strike and forced their bosses to sweeten the deal. The snack strikers of the summer could look back with pride. “It feels like we started a movement,” said Mendenhall of Frito-Lay.
Informal strikes caught the public imagination too. Photos (whether real or apocryphal) zipped around social media of “We all quit!” manifestos taped to restaurant doors. Who doesn’t love seeing an arrogant boss get his comeuppance?
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A month and a half into the school year, the Labor Action Tracker at Cornell University had already documented 10 sickouts by school bus drivers, mostly nonunion and presumably self-organized. There must have been an element of contagion: four of these 10 walkouts were in adjoining counties in Maryland.
Strike fever wasn’t exactly sweeping the nation. But we got a hint of what could be.
The year drew to a close with two developments whose impacts will reverberate for years to come.
For the first time in 25 years, a slate backed by Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) won in a November landslide to lead the country’s largest private sector union. Teamsters United coalition leaders have pledged to organize militant contract campaigns, end two-tier at UPS, strike when necessary, and organize in the union’s core sectors.
Barely two weeks later came the other big news: the yes vote in the Auto Workers (UAW) referendum on whether members should directly elect their top officers. As in the Teamsters in the 1980s, members had pushed the federal government to recognize democracy as an appropriate remedy for union corruption.
The opportunity for a real opposition in the UAW is a sea-change; the union has had one-party rule for generations. There is no longstanding caucus equivalent to TDU, but the group that organized for the referendum, Unite All Workers for Democracy, could be the seed of one.
And one more hopeful development in union reform comes from Mexico, where 6,000 General Motors workers at the Silao plant voted in August to reject their sham union, part of their fight for an independent union. They are bucking the corrupt federation that has long dominated Mexico’s labor scene.
If workers have begun to discover their latent collective power, it’s not a moment too soon—conditions are terrifyingly bad. More than 5 million people worldwide have died of Covid. With a new variant spreading, nurse unions from 28 countries are asking the United Nations to make a handful of rich countries stop blocking poor countries’ access to vaccines.
Workplace hazards are multiplying—not only Covid but also climate-fueled catastrophes. Farmworkers, construction workers, and letter carriers were among those who had to work outdoors through a hellish West Coast summer in record-breaking heat and clouds of wildfire smoke. On December 10, in one of the deadliest tornado outbreaks in U.S. history, six workers died in an Illinois Amazon warehouse and eight died in a Kentucky scented candle factory after supervisors threatened to fire them if they left.
Since the pandemic began, U.S. billionaires have increased their wealth a staggering 70 percent—while 89 million workers lost their jobs, 20 million aren’t getting enough to eat, and 12 million are behind on the rent. Desperation and stress intensified another workplace hazard: violence. A deadly shooting in a rail yard in San Jose was one example.
And employers have been seizing their own opportunities—forcing workers in many sectors to fight just to get back what they had before, never mind make gains.
Hotels, having laid everyone off, experimented with bringing back only some. Universities used the pandemic as cover to push long-desired cutbacks. The health care giant Kaiser Permanente proposed two-tier pay, just to see if it could get away with it. Transit agencies in the Bay Area dragged their heels on restoring jobs—even after the federal government sent money earmarked for exactly that.
Lest we forget: 2021 started with Trump still in the White House and serious concerns about a coup to keep him there. Biden is better, though he’s no Bernie—and the two turncoat Democrats in cahoots with the Republicans have stalled a lot of progress in the Senate.
We got the infrastructure bill, which will create millions of new jobs in construction, transit, and telecom, though it was shorn of investment in service sector jobs. We still don’t have a Green New Deal or a Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, two acts that could shake up the landscape in labor’s favor.
Labor’s overall level of activity and organization is still far from what’s needed—but there’s reason for hope. As workers try to claw back what’s been squeezed from them, they’re getting a taste of their own power.
This 2021 was only a shadow of the year we could have had. Many big contracts came and went with no strike, no mobilization, no campaign at all—look for our story next week on the chances that labor had better not miss next year.
And while employers struggled with supply chain problems that, in theory, gave workers greater leverage than ever, few workers took collective advantage of these favorable conditions. This enormous potential is still waiting to be unlocked.
The challenges, of course, remain enormous. Employers can (and do) get away with almost anything. They can threaten to permanently replace strikers, or to close the plant and move away—and they sometimes follow through on those threats. Workers and unions, meanwhile, are hemmed in by legal limits on when and how we can strike, and stiff penalties for breaking them. Not to mention all the other forces that hem us in, like fear, division, confusion, and hopelessness.
Only 11 percent of workers have the protection of a union, and that includes a lot of ho-hum unions. Only a handful have been through workplace collective action, which can crack open your sense of what’s possible.
Here’s hoping this year’s ripple of militancy is followed by a much bigger wave. We’re going to need all the power we can muster.
Labor Notes staff contributed reporting to this article all year.