US workers between ‘fear’ and ‘pride’ in massive strike movement

It’s “Striketober” in the United States. In the month of October, more than 100,000 workers across the US in various industries have walked out, demanding better pay and working conditions. From snack foods to taxis to healthcare, workers have put their foot down. This wave of strikes represents a marked change in the American labour movement, which our Observer says has been driven by corporate greed and the Covid-19 pandemic.

A solitary protester held down the Kellogg’s picket line in Omaha, Nebraska despite heavy rains.
A solitary protester held down the Kellogg’s picket line in Omaha, Nebraska despite heavy rains. © Facebook / @kelloggstrike

At John Deere, agricultural machinery company, 10,000 workers who are part of the United Auto Workers went on strike for better pay on October 14. And 24,000 healthcare workers at Kaiser Permanente in California and Oregon authorised a strike on October 11, giving their employer 10-days’ notice before they walk off the job in protest of decreased wages for new hires. 

Countless other strikes, from taxi drivers to steelworkers, have taken off across the country, with workers demanding better hours, fair pay and benefits. The wave is a rare show of force from unions and workers in the United States, and has been met with widespread support, both on and offline. The hashtag #Striketober was created to help striking workers share their experiences.

A freight truck driver in Ottumwa, Iowa refuses to cross a picket line of striking John Deere employees to make a delivery to the factory, in this video posted October 14, 2021 on Twitter.
A UPS delivery driver shares a tip to support striking workers on Twitter on October 15, 2021: “Do not cross picket lines to make a delivery ever. We have the option to enter a non-delivery as STRIKE.”

The US’s competitive labour market coming out of the Covid-19 pandemic has given workers more bargaining power. In August, there were more job openings than unemployed people, due to childcare concerns, health fears and Covid-19 losses.

The shortages, along with supply chain disruptions, have given workers an upper hand, with some large companies offering sizable signing bonuses, better benefits and easier application processes in order to attract employees. Unions have been able to take a harder stance in contract negotiations, refusing to accept lower offers from companies.

In a now-viral photograph, Kellogg’s worker Erin Shaffer held down the picket line in Omaha, Nebraska in the middle of the night on October 13 despite torrential rain.

‘We saw the plant make record profits and know the sacrifices we made to make that happen’

One of the major strikes is at the Kellogg Company, known for breakfast and snack foods. At four of Kellogg’s manufacturing plants – in Nebraska, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Tennessee – 1,400 employees have been on strike since October 5 to demand equal wages and benefits for employees. 

Dan Osborn is the president of the Omaha chapter of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union (BCTGM). He has worked at Kellogg’s as an industrial engineer for 18 years. 

This is the first time in my 18 years in the union that anything like this has happened. The climate is definitely changing. It’s a good possibility that Covid has emboldened people because they go to work as frontline workers or essential workers. We never shut the plant down, it continued to run straight through and make record profits. We saw that and know the sacrifices we made to make that happen. 

Kellogg profits did indeed increase during the pandemic, with increased demand for ready-made snacks and food products, but Osborn and the hundreds of other Kellogg workers on strike say these gains have come at the expense of workers.

‘Throughout Covid, we worked seven days a week, 12 hours a day’

We’re fighting corporate greed. Kellogg’s is making record profits, CEOs and high-level executives are taking 20% increases in their compensations, millions of dollars [Editor’s note: Kellogg’s CEO earned more than $11.6 million in 2020 compared to $9.7 million in 2019].

Throughout Covid, we worked seven days a week, 12 hours a day, every day. As a mechanic, I get less time off, so I’d maybe get one day off every 30 days, sometimes not. Sometimes I’d work 60 days straight. If there was somebody out [with Covid-19], we had to cover them with overtime. The company continued to make record profits through the pandemic off our backs. For them to try to take anything from us at this time, it doesn’t make any sense. I think people are fed up, I think we’re done and we’re bonding together, banding together and taking a stand. We’re trying to save our jobs, but save our jobs the way they should be, which is with a livable wage and good benefits. 

[BCTGM] spent two weeks at negotiations with the company, but the company was not willing to move off of their proposals. We took a strike vote at four plants and it passed unanimously. 

In October, Kellogg’s proposed to expand a system that would allow newer employees to be paid less than others for the same work, as well as end cost-of-living raises for employees. This combined with understaffing and long working hours during the pandemic brought workers to a breaking point.

Kellogg’s workers in Battle Creek, Michigan hold pickets with their families, in these photos posted to Twitter on October 9, 2021.

‘It’s really tense out on the line’

[I’ve been at the picket line] every day. It’s hard – everybody’s got a family to support, we all have bills to pay. They cut off our medical insurance, so people are struggling to support their families that need to go to the doctor. 

Here in Omaha, we have to cover six gates [to the Kellogg factory], 24 hours a day with picketers. There’s a truck entrance where they bring in other workers that they hire from around the country to come in and take our jobs and get production up and running. Those buses come through our lines every day – we’ve had three people hit by buses. They’re not even stopping, they’re running people over. So it’s really tense out on the line. 

"We are ready, willing and able to meet and have repeatedly communicated that to the union," Kris Bahner, a Kellogg spokesperson, told Nebraska Public Media. "In the meantime, we are implementing contingency plans to mitigate supply disruptions, including using salaried employees and third-party resources to produce food."

Meanwhile, the union says that Kellogg has threatened to move jobs to Mexico and spend $10 million a day in order not to give in to the union’s demands, which the company has denied.

Local community members in Omaha have shown their support for strikers in various ways, like these bikers who drove by and then helped block the gates of the Kellogg’s factory on October 14.

‘There’s pride involved in what we’re doing, our struggle and our fight’

Osborn continued:

It’s an emotional cocktail. There’s pride involved in what we’re doing, our struggle and our fight, but we’re all scared for the outcome. But people are optimistic that Kellogg’s is going to do the right thing and we’ll go back to the table and reach an agreement. 

The easiest way people can show their support is not to buy Kellogg’s products right now. But we’ve also had crazy support from the community – dropping off pizza, doughnuts, cookies and water every day. We’ve had state senators, lawmakers stop by and picket with us to show their support. That’s what’s keeping us going really, then we know we’re not alone.