Workers Are Furious. Their Unions Are Scrambling to Catch Up
James Geiger is a John Deere machinist aged 53 in Waterloo. He’s fed up with these two things.
First, the way newer employees are treated at agricultural machine manufacturers compared with older workers. After 19 years of service, he says his pay and pension benefits don’t stack up against those of his coworkers hired before 1997 and he’s often required to work mandatory overtime. He and 10,000 John Deere employees protested the closing of 14 John Deere plants in fourteen cities on October 14.
The other thing getting under Geiger’s skin is how his union, United Auto Workers (UAW), is handling this moment. UAW was the one that signed the agreement for the two-tiered system in the 1990s. “We don’t trust the international [union],” says Geiger. “They brought that lousy contract for us to vote on.”
Geiger’s frustration with his union is not unique. It is not unusual for workers to drive much of the organizing in these striking weeks. Tens of thousands have taken to the streets from Colorado to Georgia to protest poor pay and conditions. The dynamic has left national and international union leadership scrambling to keep up with their own members’ decisions to strike, their shifting goals, and how to support the social media-driven communications strategies workers are employing.
“There is this grassroots push,” says David Madland, senior adviser to the American Worker Project at the Center for American Progress, “and leaders have to catch up.”
After the COVID-19 Pandemic in which blue-collar workers put their lives at risk to get to work and their white-collar peers largely worked remotely, some union leaders and union members feel disconnected a year and a bit. Union leadership is sometimes so focused on state and federal power structures that they’re missing the tectonic shifts among workers on the ground, labor experts and striking workers say.
“There is a danger and a concern that some of the heads of unions tend to be DC-focused. [They are] too interested in, ‘What are the debates on reconciliation? Who’s working with the administration? Are we invited to the meetings in DC?’ Yes, there’s an important role to play there,” argues Faiz Shakir, the founder of advocacy journalism startup More Perfect Union and former Bernie Sanders’ 2020 campaign manager. “But right now, especially at this moment in history, the worker fights are out there around the country.”
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The real problem, some say, is that unions are not seizing on this moment to capitalize on workers’ demands. “The international and the local union kept telling us, ‘You guys will never see a [full] pension and never see medical benefits when you retire,’” says Geiger of the UAW. “I always ask, ‘Why not? That’s what we want. Take it to the bargaining table and fight for it.’”
The iron is always hot. U.S. workers have extraordinary advantages over employers because of current labor conditions:According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ October statistics, there are only 7.7 million job openings and 10.4 million jobs available. A record number of people are now voluntarily quittingThey will be able to keep their jobs. “It’s kind of a perfect storm, and it allows the unions to be more aggressive than they have been for a long time,” says Ruth Milkman, chair of the Labor Studies Department at the City University of New York.
Unionized workers have taken advantage of the opportunity. Roughly 1,400 employees at four factories for Kellogg’s are striking against a two-tier wage system, in addition to the 10,000 John Deere workers that have walked out over similar frustrations. Mid-October saw a vote of over 24,000 Kaiser Permanente workers to allow a strike. IATSE (a union that represents approximately 60,000 television and film workers) was on the edge of striking earlier in October. The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers suggested a tentative deal with more humane hours. It is unclear if IATSE workers will accept the proposed contract. After a five week strike, over 1,000 Nabisco workers in five states demanded pay raises.
Union leaders have been given a rare opportunity. This recent surge of labor activity—dubbed “Striketober”—has garnered national headlines, excited rank-and-file laborers, and pushed employers onto their heels. Although private-sector union membership is at a low level, hovering around 6% nationwide, the unions have an opportunity to mobilize, gain wins and recruit new members. They may need to change their strategy to achieve this.
“In order to have a resurgence,” says Milkman, “you’d have to organize that 94%.”
‘Do not try to package that script’
Rob Eafen, the President of Local 252G at the Memphis Kellogg’s facility, says he and other local union leaders didn’t originally want to strike; they wanted to continue negotiating for a better contract. The workers won in the end. “The movement to strike was a groundswell, from the people,” Eafen says. “We heard the call to strike at all the union meetings that we had, and in conversations with employees in the plant… We had to listen to what the people wanted.”
But helping workers facilitate a strike isn’t enough, workers say. The union leadership must empower workers to spread their message beyond picket lines to the headlines. In the absence of effective communication strategies from his international union, Geiger says he’s taken it upon himself to talk to tell the world what he and his coworkers at John Deere are fighting for—and why. “We’re told by the union not to talk to the media, to just refer them to the union hall. That’s wrong,” he says. “Talk to the people that are doing the work. That’s where you get the real story.”
Permitting striking workers to share their own experiences with the masses can be critical to a modern labor strike’s success, says Shakir. When unions disseminate information about strikes through press releases or carefully edited statements—the safe strategies of yesteryear—they risk suppressing the passion of the people working on the front lines. If you compare grassroots, worker-generated videos with one produced by union leadership, the latter is “going to be canned,” Shakir says. “It’s going to look like talking points. It’s going to look like you set them up to say things,” Shakir says. “I firmly believe in letting [workers]Tell them their story. Do not try to package that script.”
The Kellogg’s strikes are one example. At the Omaha, Nebraska plant, packing troubleshooter Jeff Jens, 49, is leading the local union’s social media efforts, capitalizing on Facebook and a blog to keep supporters informed about how the strike is going. “There’s been a shift in the labor movement right now in two ways,” says Jens. “One is that power is being recognized by all the unions themselves, but also in the laborers themselves, realizing what their worth and what the power of their voice is.”
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At the Memphis Kellogg’s plant, the strategy is similar. “Pretty much everyone” at the Kellogg’s plant in Memphis, especially workers in their 20s, 30s and 40s, are using social media to express their personal motivations for striking to garner national support, says Eafen. “Social media is the devil,” he adds, “but it’s been very, very successful.”
Liz Shuler, the president of AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest union federation, says national and international unions could do a better job of forging connections between other, tangentially related grassroots movements, like the Sunrise Movement’s climate organizing and Black Lives Matters’ racial equity demonstrations. Collective bargaining can be used to negotiate better pay and working conditions, like John Deere and Kellogg’s employees are striking for, but it can also be used to negotiate employer policies on issues like carbon usage; sexual harassment; and diversity, equity and inclusion.
“These are some of the things that folks in our society and our economy care deeply about, but they don’t necessarily see unions as the path forward,” she told TIME in an October interview. “Our challenge is to make that case to more working people outside of unions to see us as the path forward.”
Mary Kay Henry, president of Service Employees International Union, is also a leader in Fight For $15. This group advocates for a $15 minimum wage and urges union leaders to connect with other groups. “The union isn’t just about wages, hours and working conditions,” she says. “It’s about everybody’s total life, and us exercising the power of our militancy to change work, but also change society.”
‘That silver tsunami is about to hit us’
That unions’ membership rolls are anemic is hardly news. Due to increasing globalization, and rising right-to-work laws making it harder for unions to be formed, the number of members in the union has fallen over the years. In 1983, unions accounted for roughly one fifth of all workers. Now they make up one percent.
But it’s about to get a lot worse: current union members tend to skew older. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (Board of Labor Statistics), membership rates for workers aged 45-64 are the highest and the lowest, respectively. In 2020, roughly 13% of the workers aged 45-54 or 55-64 were members of unions. This compares to just 4.4% for those aged 16-24. “This is the challenge of our time. Something like 10,000 people a day are retiring,” Shuler says, “and that silver tsunami is about to hit us.”
Multiple experts agree that this demographic problem raises the stakes. To prove to workers that membership is worth it—that it pays dividends in the form of better pay, benefits and work conditions—unions have to chalk up real, contractual wins. Failure to offer workers the support and negotiation skills they need now could result in a decrease in their capacity to unionize more places and recruit new members.
After nearly two decades of hard work at John Deere, Geiger says it’s time to throw cautious labor organizing approaches to the wind. “I have no qualms about speaking out against the union, because they can’t fire me,” he says. “They can make my life miserable, but how much more miserable can it get?”