COVID-19 Strike Wave
By Rob Chlala, Program Manager of Funders for a Just Economy
The last few weeks have seen an unprecedented wave of labor organizing, coast to coast. Payday Report has offered a map of these strikes; Labor Notes is offering both updates and guides for workers; and the American Prospect has nearly daily news via its new “Unsanitized” column. Across these, strike demands include personal protective equipment (PPE), hazard pay, closure with pay of work sites where COVID-19 presents a high risk, as well as demands for broader policy and corporate responses to protect communities – such as GE workers call to shift to ventilator production. Black, undocumented, women and other highly vulnerable workers are risking job loss in one of the most uncertain economic times in a century — and making gains for their fellow workers and neighbors.
Sectors where corporations have fought hard to quell unionization are seeing significant actions. Workers in Amazon warehouses in New York have captured headlines through their walk out and the attempted smearing of a strike leader by Jeff Bezos’s leadership cadre, with Chicago Amazon workers ramping up their own efforts. “Gig” Instacart workers have led their own strikes over two weeks, alongside delivery workers at Target, Barnes & Nobles, and other large retailer and warehouse facilities. Trader Joe’s has also become a live site of strikes and public protest, bringing new worker power energy to a large multinational corporation that has historically fought hard against labor.
Unions are also using strikes to move employers. A union-led bus driver’s strike in Detroit led to significant new protections — a move from management that was sadly too late for one driver who lost his life due to COVID-19 complications. A mix of union authorized, wildcat and new strikes — many led by Latinas — are popping up at food processing plants from Georgia to Colorado, which are also high-risk, high-contact zones. Union-led campaigns are also challenging the lack of response of fast-food chains with strikes starting this week across a large number of chains, including McDonalds, Taco Bell, El Pollo Loco and more (mainly in California).
Where unions are not able to move fast or are facing recalcitrance, workers like those in Detroit’s auto industry have fought to close plants with pay in “wildcat” strikes - actions not officially sanctioned by their union. Many such strikes, like the successful fight to close a Kroger warehouse in Memphis, or for protections for sanitation workers in Pittsburgh, are being led by Black workers. Even historically-less vocal trade unions, like carpenters in Boston, are launching wildcat efforts to get the state and employers to halt operations with pay.
COVID-19 strikes to close operations have been occurring globally. In Europe, this includes car factories in Italy and Amazon, DHL and ASOS distribution sites in Britain. In the United States, talk of a general strike is more active than ever, even among celebrities — a conversation that was already being sparked by youth outlets like Teen Vogue in the wake of last year’s massive strike wave.
Beyond using strikes, there are also numerous other labor organizing efforts already having a powerful effect — from grassroots Starbucks organizing to close with pay as operations reshuffled, to union-led grocery efforts to fundamentally shift daily procedures, provide PPE and include hazard pay. And of course, there are also rent strikes, ICE and other prisoner hunger strikes and student strikes that could lead to significant new solidarities.
This is just a small round up of ongoing efforts and news sources, with an understanding that there are many more dimensions to the labor situation — and many more efforts not covered. NFG's Funders for a Just Economy program will be providing more resources to you about how philanthropy can support such efforts in the weeks to come, including voices from the strike frontlines. If you have ideas about what you’d like to see or strike stories you would like us to highlight, please reach out to me: firstname.lastname@example.org. And of course, the best way to support a strike is not to cross the picket line, virtually or otherwise.