Melissa Harris-Perry: Unions. We're talking here, AFL-CIO, SEIU, American Federation of Teachers, you know what I'm talking about. Unions pulled out all the stops to get President Joe Biden elected in 2020, and so far, President Biden has given them love right back. Here, he is last month honoring unions on Labor Day.
President Biden: On labor day, we honor the dignity of American worker, and every day we remember that America wasn't built by Wall Street. They're not all bad folks on Wall Street, I'm not suggesting that, but they didn't build America. It was built by the middle class and unions built the middle class.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Labor is having a moment right now.
Male Speaker 1: Hold that line.
Male Speaker 2: UAW 74.
Male Speaker 3: We're willing to stay out here one day longer, one day stronger. However long it take, but we are willing to negotiate with the company whenever they ready to talk.
Melissa Harris-Perry: In October, workers at John Deere, Kellogg's and Kaiser Permanente have all gone on strike. According to Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations, there have been close to 180 labor strikes so far this year. Here's what Chris Lars said, an employee at John Deere for 19 years told Democracy Now about why they are striking.
Chris Lars: What we're asking for is a fair shake and something equitable. I'd like to quote Walter Reuther here, "We don't want a bigger slice of pie, we want a bigger pie."
Melissa Harris-Perry: For more on this, I spoke with Steven Greenhouse, former New York times labor reporter, an author of Beaten Down, Worked Up, the past, present and future of American labor.
Steven Greenhouse: We're seeing lots of turbulence tumult right now. We're seeing a series of strikes, a big wave of strikes, over 10,000 workers have walked out at 14 John Deere factories, we're seeing a strike at Kellogg's. In four different states 1,400 workers have walked out. There's a long running cold strike in Alabama, nurses walked out at a hospital in Buffalo, there's a very long strike at a hospital in West Massachusetts. Then 24,000 nurses for Kaiser Permanente have voted to authorize a strike, if they don't get what they want negotiated.
There's a lot going on in labor and I think a lot workers are fed up. They feel they worked extremely hard, they gave their all during their pandemic and then their employers come back and offer them mediocre to lousy contract offers. They say, "What's going on? We gave, we did our all, we increased your profits and why are you offering us such a measly deal?" That's on the union side, Melissa.
On the non-union side, we're just seeing a lot of workers exasperated, frustrated, fed up. As one economist described it, it's a, "Take this job and shove the economy." They say, "We risked our lives during the pandemic. While you well-paid white-collar workers worked at home, we blue-collar workers, we frontline workers busted our derrières, busted our hums, risked getting COVID and now you're just offering us measly raises and still forcing us to work tons of overtime. We're going to look for better jobs, better paying jobs elsewhere." That's why there's been this so-called great resignation, I might call it the Great Exodus from jobs.
More people are voluntary quitting their jobs than any time in the last two decades and that's because many people have reassessed their jobs during their pandemic, reassessed their lives and their life-work-family balance and said, "Something's broken, I want something better and I'm not just ready to walk, but I'm walking to a look for a better job."
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let's start with non-unionized workers, where we're seeing, if you're looking at the data, if you've got this 10,000 foot perspective, you can see all of these individual workers in individual households, in different cities and communities, making this choice to exit and to find other kinds of work. Now, is that just happening individual by individual or is there actually, even for those who are not unionized, is there a collective conversation happening somewhere or is it really just a trend that we're seeing? I'm trying to understand what those data tell us about how workers are making that decision and then we'll come to the unions themselves.
Steven Greenhouse: I saw that Lane Windham, labor expert at Georgetown, called it a general strike by non-union workers. I think that's an overstatement, but I think a lot of non-union workers see, read that other non-union workers are really dissatisfied and they're walking their voluntary quitting, they are exiting. They're saying, "Maybe I shouldn't put up with this $9 or $10 an hour fast food job, when I could get a job at Amazon for $15." People have opened their eyes.
I think the pandemic has forced a lot of people to really open their eyes and see, "Hey, I'm not really being treated well at work. I'm getting paid only $10 an hour. Some weeks, they only have me working 12 hours, other weeks they forced me to work 10 hours overtime, involuntarily." After several decades, in which things in many ways have gotten worse and worse, American workers, stagnant wages, health benefits have gotten worse, retirement benefits have gotten worse and now that the pandemic is receding and now that many employers are reopening and are desperate to hire people, workers say, "We have an opportunity, we have more power than before."
I think non-union workers, it's contagious, they see this happening, they see reports on TV, on radio and say, "I could exercise more power, I could leave my job, I could tell my boss, if you don't giving me a $3-hour raise, I'm going to leave my job." A big question now, is whether this will lead to a more long-term improvement in wages and how workers are treated.
Melissa Harris-Perry: In this mass exit, are we also seeing mass organizing? I'm wondering for non-union workers, if we're seeing a move towards unionization, towards other kinds of collective bargaining, so that some of it doesn't have to be simply an exodus, but could actually be about a shift of cultures, of practices and of pay?
Steven Greenhouse: Melissa, thanks for clarifying this point. Many workers are happy, especially white-collar workers who could work at home, safely away from COVID, not having to commute two hours a day, but it's the frontline workers, the essential workers, the blue-collar workers, the fast food workers, the factory workers, the meat packing workers, they're much more disgruntled, they're much more fed up, they're much more ready to leave. Is this translating to more organizing?
In the biggest unionization victory of the year, 3,000 professors at the University of Pittsburgh have voted to unionize, 71% to 29%. That's a big victory for labor. I'm sure many of your listeners have heard about, read about the effort to unionize Starbucks in Buffalo. That's the most sophisticated effort to unionize Starbucks in the country. There are nearly 6,000 Starbucks in the nation right now, corporate-owned Starbucks in the nation, not a single one is unionized.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Okay. Now let's talk about workers who are unionized in this moment and who are striking, not just in a general strike way, but who are making that choice to strike. What's going on and how are those companies responding?
Steven Greenhouse: I'm working on a story about this and I interviewed a striker at John Deere, I interviewed a striker at Kellogg's and they both used the exact same phrase. I asked them, "How do you feel about the company's offer?" They both said, "It's a slap in the face." At both Kellogg's and at John Deere, workers worked a lot of overtime during the pandemic because there was great demand for their products. Meanwhile, profits of those companies are way up and the CEOs are paying themselves, $50 million, $20 million a year. There's the workers at Deer, the workers at Kellogg's, seeing that there's a labor shortage now, they see that companies are desperate to hire, they realize, "Hey, if we walk out, it's not going to be easy for the company to find replacement workers to weaken our strike."
I think both Kellogg's and Deere, they didn't get the memo that, "Hey, the world has changed. Hey, millions of American workers busted their hump, worked very hard, gave their all, risked their lives during the pandemic and it's time for employers to treat their workers better." A lot of employers are treating their workers better and are giving raises and they're not the ones facing strikes. At Deere, at Kellogg's, they're both insisting on suit tier contracts. A lot of these workers are saying, "What about the future of our children? If there's a two-tier contract, our children are going to end up with a much worse wages, much worse working conditions than we have." These workers at Deere and a Kellogg's are fighting to maintain standards. They don't want wages and working conditions going backwards, especially after they worked so hard during the pandemic and after they've been called "essential' workers.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You've been talking about this pandemic moment as a turning point for so much in how both American workers understand themselves, understand themselves as essential, understand where they connect. Are there any historical parallels? Are there moments in our history where similarly, there seemed to be this great awakening of laborers understanding, "Hey, wait a minute, we may have a lot more power in this system than it initially seems?"
Steven Greenhouse: Great question. Historians will pointed out that 1919, the year after World War I and 1946, the year after the World War II ended, had the biggest strike waves in American history. There was the great reassessment, the great rethinking of my jobs after having served in a war and is this what they want, can't I do better? There is this great reassessment going on now. We've been through this hellish year, this hellish 18 months, where a lot of workers worked at home. They saw their lives on the line, when they were working in supermarkets or at fast food places or in meat packing plants or in factories. It's made them rethink, "Is it worth my doing this? Is it worth working 70 hours and hardly seeing my kids during the week? Is it worth working for $10, $11 an hour?"
I think this ugly historical development, the pandemic, is making people rethink their jobs, whether they liked the jobs enough, whether they think their jobs are so bad that they should look elsewhere, whether the life-family balance in their jobs is so bad that it's time to look elsewhere.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right. I want to talk about the politics of this a little bit. When you look at the Democratic Party, union households remain among the most staunchest supporters and most likely voters for the Democratic Party. Unions remain a really great way to just organize the vote. It's basically Black churches and union meetings, if you want to get out that Democratic Party vote.
What are we going to see, or what do you suspect we might see or are already seeing, not only from DC lawmakers, but I'm thinking here specifically of Democrats in states and maybe Democrats in states where you don't have a lot of union activity, but now suddenly, there's this labor boiling. Is it possible for lawmakers to either shut this all down, or really expand this, in ways that allow for workers to really move forward politically as well as economically?
Steven Greenhouse: Joe Biden is the most pro-union president since FDR, some people say even more pro-union. He's made extremely pro-union statements more than anything FDR said where he backed the unionization effort at Amazon. He talks about the importance of more workers unionizing to create a fairer economy and to lift workers, but he's reluctant to put his thumb on the scale during a strike. He said the strike at Deer is a right to strike, but he's not ready to say I support the workers in this strike.
I think workers do feel emboldened because there is this pro- union president and Biden, much more than Barack Obama, much more than Bill Clinton, much more than Jimmy Carter, sees that having strong unions is important. One, to create a fair economy. Two, to help lift workers wages and reduce wage stagnation. Third, for political reasons, stronger unions are important to help the Democrats, for fairness, for the good of the economy and for politics and for protecting our democracy to help unions grow. I think that's why Biden is trying very hard to help unions and help blue-collar workers.
His efforts to make childcare more affordable, his push to make community college free, a lot of blue-collar workers can hardly afford to send their kids to college, even community college. Biden had this great idea to make community college free. I worry that's going to be deleted from his plan. The $300 a month childcare tax credit, that's to help blue-collar families. It might not mean much for people earning $500,000 a year, but it'll mean a lot for blue-collar families, frontline workers who make $50,000 or $30,000 a year.
Biden's infrastructure plan, that's to create hundreds of thousands of good middle-class. Biden always says union jobs, because he wants to strengthen the working class, strengthen blue-collar America. I'm sure he has a mind, "If I do all those things, I'll make a lot of workers in Wisconsin, and Michigan, and Pennsylvania, and Minnesota, and Iowa, and Ohio happy and that's not just good for society and good for our economy, but it will help the Democrats Politically."
Melissa Harris-Perry: Steven Greenhouse is a former New York Times labor reporter and the author of Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor. Steven, thank you so much for joining us.
Steven Greenhouse: It's been a pleasure and an honor. Thanks so much.
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