From Portside <[email protected]>
Subject In a Strong Economy, Why Are So Many Workers on Strike?
Date October 21, 2019 3:51 AM
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[Last year, the number of workers who participated in significant
strikes soared to nearly 500,000, its highest point since the
mid-1980s, while the total duration of such strikes reached a 15-year
high.] [[link removed]]

IN A STRONG ECONOMY, WHY ARE SO MANY WORKERS ON STRIKE?  
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Noam Scheiber
October 19, 2019
New York Times
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_ Last year, the number of workers who participated in significant
strikes soared to nearly 500,000, its highest point since the
mid-1980s, while the total duration of such strikes reached a 15-year
high. _

Striking workers at a General Motors plant in Flint, Mich. They say
concessions they made during the recession have not been rolled back
even as G.M. has raked in billions in profits., Erin Kirkland for The
New York Times

 

At first glance, it may seem like a paradox: Even as the economy rides
a 10-year winning streak, tens of thousands of workers across the
country, from General Motors employees to teachers in Chicago, are
striking to win better wages and benefits.

But, according to those on strike, the strong growth is precisely the
point. Autoworkers, teachers and other workers accepted austerity when
the economy was in a free fall, expecting to share in the gains once
the recovery took hold.

In recent years, however, many of those workers have come to believe
that they fell for a sucker’s bet, as they watched their employers
grow flush while their own incomes barely budged. Corporate profits
are up by nearly 4 percent, about the same percentage as household
income since their pre-recession peak. But corporate profits had
already recovered by 2010, while it took the typical
household another six years
[[link removed]] to regain its
footing. Many
[[link removed]] Americans
still find themselves struggling. The resulting frustration is partly
behind the recent upturn in strikes.

“That was the understanding — that if we gave up the concessions
back in 2007 and 2009, that once G.M. got back on their feet, we would
slowly get those things back,” said Tammy Daggy, who worked at the
now-idled G.M. plant in Lordstown, Ohio, for nearly 25 years. But on
many issues, “we never did.”

To an extent, the pattern of strikes reflects a recurring feature of
the labor market: Workers typically become bolder the longer an
expansion continues, using the leverage they have when jobs are harder
to fill to demand greater compensation. This was particularly true
during the three decades after World War II, according to a survey of
research by Jake Rosenfeld, a sociologist at Washington University in
St. Louis.

Overall strike activity has fallen sharply since the 1970s, as the
ranks of unions have been depleted, dropping to about 10 percent of
the work force from over 25 percent. Employers have also responded
more aggressively — for example, by permanently replacing striking
employees.

Now, though, workers appear increasingly willing to walk off the job.
Last year, the number of workers who participated in significant
strikes soared to nearly 500,000,
[[link removed]] its highest point
since the mid-1980s, while the total duration of such strikes reached
a 15-year high.

Striking hotel workers at a Marriott in San Francisco last year. Ben
Margot/Associated Press

The backdrop for this trend is a rising gap between the money
employers are making and the portion they’re sharing with workers.
The share of the national income that workers receive fell in the
early 2000s to its lowest level since World War II according to some
measures [[link removed]], then
collapsed further in 2009. It has yet to recover.

That may be partly because the labor market is weaker than the picture
painted by the official unemployment rate of 3.5 percent. That rate
measures only the number of out-of-work Americans who say they are
looking for jobs. It excludes Americans in their prime working years
[[link removed]] who are not actively
looking for work but, given the opportunity, might choose to re-enter
the work force.

According to Neel Kashkari, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of
Minneapolis, the group who could quickly re-enter the work force is
potentially large, and may help employers avoid bidding up wages to
lure those who are currently employed. “We still don’t know how
much shadow labor is out there,” Mr. Kashkari said in an interview
on Thursday.

But regardless of the strength of the labor market, in recent decades
employers have amassed more power to hold wages down.

“In the late 1990s, it seemed like maybe a hot economy was
sufficient” to substantially raise workers’ incomes and narrow
inequality, said Jason Furman, who led the White House Council of
Economic Advisers during President Barack Obama’s second term. But
a series
[[link removed]] of
[[link removed]] reports
[[link removed]] that
Mr. Furman’s council released in 2016 documented changes that have
allowed employers to pocket more of the gains from growth. Those
changes include noncompete clauses in employment contracts and even
outright collusion, in which companies explicitly agree not to hire
workers away from one another or to offer identical wages.

Employers argue that they need additional flexibility with their work
force as they contend with global competition and technological
changes.

Scholars say there was an element of economic opportunism behind the
strikes of the 1950s and ’60s, as unions exploited their bargaining
power in tight labor markets.

Teachers in Arizona, Chicago and elsewhere have walked out in recent
years, demanding that local officials put more money into schools.
Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

But workers say today’s strikes are fueled by a deeper sense of
unfairness and economic anxiety. This past week, for example, unions
representing about 2,000 workers
[[link removed]] at
copper mines and smelters in Arizona and Texas went on strike, saying
their members had not received raises for a decade.

“It’s about: ‘O.K., the government is not going to take care of
us. Business is not going to take care of us. We’ve got to take care
of ourselves,’” said D. Taylor, president of the hospitality
workers union, UNITE HERE, which has had thousands of members strike
in the past two years, including at Marriott International
[[link removed]].
“It’s been bubbling up for some time. Now it’s come up to the
surface.”

In the airline industry, workers who made numerous concessions amid a
wave of post-9/11 corporate restructurings complain that they continue
to struggle under austerity even as the airlines post outsize profits.

“They got all these employees to agree to terms within the shadow of
bankruptcy court, then they created these megamergers and are making
billions,” said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight
Attendants.

While airline workers, unlike most private-sector workers, must
receive permission from the government before they can strike, they
have repeatedly demonstrated their anger. Thousands of airline
catering workers, many of whom make under $12 per hour, voted to
strike
[[link removed]] this
year, pending the assent of a federal mediation board. Airline
mechanics, including at Southwest Airlines, have won raises
[[link removed]] after
effectively gumming up the operations of their employers: The
mechanics significantly increased the number of low-grade maintenance
problems they identified, leading to widespread flight delays and
cancellations. (The mechanics denied that this was their intention.)

Teachers have expressed frustration that their districts were slow to
reverse the spending cuts that followed the economic crisis a decade
ago, even as state and local budgets have recovered.

“When the recession hit, teachers kind of buckled down. We said:
‘We get it. Everybody has got to pull their weight,’” said Noah
Karvelis, who helped organize last year’s teacher walkouts in
Arizona that forced lawmakers to raise teacher salaries and partially
restore education funding
[[link removed]].
“But 10 years later, the state’s economy is back, we’re doing
really well, and still the cuts are there. It was a huge, huge thing
for us.”

A picket line on Thursday outside John Spry Community School in
Chicago. Joshua Lott for The New York Times

In Chicago, teachers who went on strike on Thursday are demanding that
local officials devote more of a recent billion-dollar cash infusion
from the state to raises. They point out that teaching assistants’
pay starts at around $30,000 a year but they are required by law to
live in the high-cost city. And veteran teachers often leave the
district during the several years in which they only receive
cost-of-living increases. The teachers also want the district to hire
more school nurses and librarians, who are in short supply across
Chicago.

“In Chicago, the citizenry during the austerity talks believed
it,” said Michelle Gunderson, a first-grade teacher on the union’s
bargaining committee, referring to the lean contract
[[link removed]] negotiated
in 2016. “At that time, we had a Republican governor who wasn’t
funding our schools. But now an infusion of money has come in that has
not made it to the classroom.”

The school district has noted
[[link removed]] that
$700 million of that money went directly to teacher pensions, and that
the rest kept the district solvent. The district has proposed
[[link removed]] raising
salaries 16 percent over five years and substantially increasing the
number of nurses.

For its part, while G.M. has made $35 billion in profits in North
America over the past three years, sales appear to be slowing in the
United States and China. Domestic automakers also say
[[link removed]] they
are under pressure from foreign rivals, which have lower labor costs
in nonunion factories in the South, and to invest in developing
electric vehicles.

That is one reason G.M. sought to preserve a so-called two-tiered wage
scale introduced amid the company’s struggles over a decade ago, in
which workers hired after 2007 make up to 45 percent less than the $31
an hour that veteran workers currently earn. The company also relies
on a cadre of temporary workers who earn even less.

As part of the tentative deal the company reached with the United
Automobile Workers, G.M. appears to have agreed to a path
[[link removed]] for
temps to become permanent workers, and to 
[[link removed]]alter
its tiered wage scale. Workers will vote on the agreement over the
next several days, and a result is expected on Friday.

Some workers are skeptical that the union made sufficient progress on
these questions, and on the extent to which G.M. can continue to shift
production to Mexico, which has imperiled jobs in the United States.

Selina Estrada, 32, who assembles doors at the G.M. plant in Spring
Hill, Tenn., said she feared the company would prevent temporary
workers from attaining permanent status by laying off those workers
before they had achieved the required three years of “continuous
service.”

“They’ll keep turning them around and laying them off right before
their three years,” she said. “It’s never going to happen.”

CORRECTION: Oct. 20, 2019

An earlier version of this article misstated the rise in corporate
profits since their pre-recession peak. Corporate profits are up by
about 4 percent, adjusted for inflation, as opposed to nearly 30
percent when inflation is not taken into account.

David Yaffe-Bellany contributed reporting.

_Noam Scheiber is writer for The New York Times and a former senior
editor for The New Republic. He was with The New Republic from 2000
until 2014. Scheiber is a Rhodes Scholar and holds a masters degree in
economics from Oxford University and a bachelor's degree in
mathematics and economics from Tulane University._

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