Workers in Hollywood have a tentative agreement to stave off a strike that would effectively shut down the entertainment industry as workers across the United States flex their muscle in what activists are calling “Striketober.” The unrest comes as the nation is beset by labor shortages, potentially giving workers more power than they have had in decades when dealing with corporations.
The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) was set to strike Sunday night but came to an agreement with Hollywood production companies over the weekend, although the deal still needs to be approved by members. More than 60,000 workers, including costumers, makeup artists, camera operators and set builders, were threatening a walkout as they negotiated a living wage for the lowest earners, more rest periods and compensation from streaming productions.
“We went toe-to-toe with some of the richest and most powerful entertainment and tech companies in the world,” IATSE International president Matthew Loeb said in a statement. “Our members stood firm.”
However, many of those IATSE members have expressed dissatisfaction with the deal and said they might vote it down. Work will continue until the ratification vote in a few weeks. The vote earlier this month to authorize the strike was nearly unanimous, just one example of widespread labor militancy across the country.
More than 10,000 John Deere workers in Iowa, Illinois and Kansas began striking last week, citing soaring profits for the company and a 160 percent raise for the CEO as they work to renegotiate their contract. Representatives from the farm equipment manufacturing company and the United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America returned to negotiations Monday, the fifth day of the strike. Union leadership had reached a tentative contract agreement earlier this month, but it was soundly rejected by workers.
Meanwhile, more than 28,000 health care workers at Kaiser Permanente in California and Oregon voted overwhelmingly this month to go on strike if their contract demands are not met. They would join other, smaller health care strikes already ongoing around the country, including one conducted by more than 2,000 workers in Buffalo, N.Y., who walked out on Oct. 1 seeking better pay, working conditions and staffing.
Workers in a wide range of industries — from breakfast cereal manufacturing to whiskey distilling to home health care to coal mining — have walked out in recent months. Earlier this year, workers at Nabisco and Volvo reached new contracts after strikes. According to the Labor Action Tracker project at Cornell, dozens of strikes have been started in October alone.
“The pandemic pushed a lot of buttons for people,” Todd Vachon, a labor expert at Rutgers University, told Yahoo News. “We saw a lot of unrest around workplace safety ... and even nonunion workers walking off the job and organizing in ways we haven’t seen in a long time.”
Over the last several decades, worker compensation has lagged well behind productivity, and CEO pay has risen sharply in comparison to that of the average worker. But labor activists say pandemic-related shutdowns and relief programs such as the expanded unemployment insurance and stimulus payments gave Americans a chance to assess their situations.
Millions have switched industries, and many who left the workforce and took on child care responsibilities have yet to return. In August, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that a record 4.3 million Americans quit their jobs, especially within the service, hospitality and retail sectors. All of this comes during a time when public sympathies have shifted toward labor.
According to a September Gallup poll, support for unions is at its highest point since 1965; 68 percent of Americans now say they approve of unions, up 20 points from a low in 2009. That includes 90 percent approval by Democrats and 66 percent approval by independents.
At the federal level, President Biden has consistently touted himself as pro-union, even encouraging Amazon workers to organize earlier this year. Labor activists have called on Congress to pass the Pro Act, a piece of legislation that would make workplace organizing easier, but it’s unlikely to overcome Republican opposition and the Democratic refusal to remove the Senate filibuster.
“People are choosing not to take the jobs that are being offered, so that builds some power and leverage for unions and bargaining that they haven’t had in decades, really, to be honest,” Vachon said.
“[Employers] can bring in replacement workers, and that makes the strike less effective. But when there’s folks refusing to take the jobs being offered, the strike is a lot more powerful of a weapon because it actually shuts down the production and the facility and brings the employer back to the table more quickly.”
In addition to the organized strikes, there have been waves of workers walking off the job in nonunion positions, such as fast food workers protesting allegedly unsafe working conditions and low wages despite being lauded as essential workers.
Allynn Umel, director of the Fight for $15 campaign, told Yahoo News that “the hypocrisy between being called ‘essential’ and the need for workers to sacrifice themselves and their families over the course of the pandemic has been fueling a lot of frustrations that workers have been facing.” Low-wage workers, Umel said, “know this is a moment where they want to make it clear that the pre-pandemic status quo of unlivable wages and terrible working conditions are no longer acceptable."
All of these factors have combined to form what former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich called a “national general strike,” as workers potentially gain more power than they have had in decades amid labor shortages and widespread dissatisfaction with income inequality.
Workers, Vachon said, “are withholding their labor because they don’t like what’s being offered, and that’s essentially what a strike is.”
“It’s not organized by any organization, and they’re not all communicating about it across the whole economy. But what’s happening is there is a de facto general strike, and that just increases the economic power of the workers who go on real strikes.”
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