Executive Director Reports

It's striking

Workers are demanding a bigger slice of the pie

Roberta LynchIncreasingly we are seeing that employees in every sector and every type of work are finding that the only means they have to gain what they deserve is to go out on strike: Hundreds of AFSCME members at the Philadelphia Museum of Art; thousands of nurses at two major medical centers in New York City, and tens of thousands of grad students at the University of California. All just in the past year.

And then there are the hundreds of thousands of UPS drivers and packers who’ve already begun strike preparations even though their negotiations won’t start till later this year.

In fact, a new study found that strikes in the United States increased by 50% from 2021 to 2022.

What’s driving this increase in what’s being termed “labor militancy”? The answer seems pretty simple to me.

First, of course, it is about wages. The galloping inflation of the past few years has taken a big toll on workers’ purchasing power. And the cost of some of life’s most basic necessities—like housing—has risen even faster than consumer goods.

Employees who’ve been content with modest wage growth over the past decade are finding themselves falling behind, with a deep unease about whether they will be able to recapture lost ground.

At the same time that working people of all stripes are being told to make do with just a little more than what they had before, those at the other end of the economic ladder are, put simply, raking in the dough.

The rich just keep on getting richer—much, much richer. A new report from the Congressional Budget Office indicates that the concentration of wealth among those at the top of the income scale has been steadily rising over the past three decades such that we’ve now arrived at the moment when the top 1% owns more than one-third of the country’s wealth.

While it’s true that public employees don’t work directly for the Ken Griffins or Jeff Bezos of the world, we do work for elected officials who all too often do their bidding. When public bodies plead poverty in the face of union contract demands, it’s fundamentally because our entire system of government funding, i.e. taxation, is distorted by the influence of the uber-rich.

With no worries ever about the cost of anything, this wealthy elite continues to have an oversized influence on economic policy—particularly tax policy. Just a small 2% income tax on family wealth over $30 million would generate enough new revenue to address our country’s most pressing social problems. But these wealth warriors oppose even the most modest of tax increases. Recall the millions that Ken Griffin poured into defeating the 2018 ballot initiative in our state to introduce a small measure of progressivity into the Illinois’ tax structure.

So, yes, working people are going to demand a bigger share of the pie that the wealthy have been gobbling up for far too long. But wages are not the whole of the story in explaining the marked increase in strikes.

The New York nurses were striking for more staff given the enormous stress that understaffing places on them every day. The U of I faculty are demanding better access to mental health services for their students. The art museum staffers were concerned about affordable health care. And, of course, we all recall the almost strike (blocked by the federal government) of railroad workers who were fighting for paid sick days.

In other words, it is very likely a convergence of concerns—inadequate wages, unsafe working conditions, inferior benefits—that precipitates a strike. And, often, underlying all else, is a fundamental demand for respect—respect for the work we do, for the toll it takes, for the sacrifices required.

This is especially true as we continue to deal with the myriad challenges posed by the COVID pandemic. In so many instances, the great risks that employees took in the initial phase of this public health emergency are mostly ignored by employers—seldom appreciated, and too often not even acknowledged.

The lesson many employees have taken from that experience is this: If the employer doesn’t value us, then we must certainly value ourselves!

The power of that self-affirmation is great. Most union members, including many AFSCME members, had grown used to waging aggressive contract campaigns that include pickets and other forms of protest, but stopped short of actually going out on strike.

Now there is a simmering anger that is propelling us forward. We know the wealthy elite in our country do not deserve their boundless riches. And we know we deserve more than the “getting by” wages and benefits that we currently have.

We’re not looking to start striking every time we hit a roadblock in contract negotiations, but we are going to consider striking as a real option when that roadblock becomes a brick wall.

We’re determined to gain the respect we deserve and the fair treatment that is essential to our future. That’s a path forward that can build better lives for us and a better future for our country.