This October, the United States has seen a sharp rise in labor unrest by workers demanding more pay, better benefits and more fair contracts, marking this month as “Striketober” for labor activists and journalists online.
Striketober began on Oct. 1, when nearly 2,000 healthcare workers at Mercy Hospital in Buffalo, N.Y. walked off the job and began a four-week-long strike. Their demands include a pay raise from the dismal $14 an hour earned by some nurses in a pandemic; implementing a “safe staffing ratio,” or a sustainable nurse-to-patient ratio; and nixing a rule that docks pay for new employees.
The Buffalo healthcare workers on strike were followed by 1,400 Kellogg cereal factory workers; 200 bus drivers in Reno, who were on strike for 25 days; 450 steelworkers in Huntington, W.Va; and, most notably, over 10,000 John Deere employees across the country. Internationally, 500,000 workers in Korea’s largest and most militant labor union, the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), engaged in a one-day general strike across industries on Oct. 20 to demand greater union rights.
Workers aren’t just earning their due through massive strikes, however. McDonald’s workers in Charlotte, V.A.; Charleston, S.C.; and other cities organized a one-day walkout on Oct. 26 to protest harassment in the workplace. Oil refinery workers at an Exxon refinery in Beaumont, Texas were hit with a lockout — as in they’ve been barred by the company from working — for refusing the latest Exxon contract and affiliating with the United Steelworkers union (USW).
A tragic, but powerful move by labor comes from Hollywood, where the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) threatened a 60,000-member strike over the right to reasonable hours, breaks and time to rest at home.
While the larger strike was averted as local unions were able to negotiate a contract, IATSE members staged a walkoff from the set of the upcoming Joel Souza film Rust on Oct. 21, after actor Alec Baldwin shot cinematographer Helyna Hutchins with a prop gun containing live ammunition. This devastating incident gives credence to industry claims of “oppressive conditions” which had crew walking off in the first place.
All of these workers are resisting a problem that plagued the working class long before the COVID-19 pandemic began to simmer: the exercise of capital’s power over labor.
Capitalism is structured on a tiered system wherein the capitalist class — the bourgeoisie — has a feudalistic amount of power over the working class — the proletariat. Most workers around the world, as well as here at the University of Connecticut, are well aware of workplace environments in which their behavior is heavily restricted and surveilled by the business owner or the manager hired by business owners. Workers toil through this reality for wages that won’t even cut their basic needs, which is exemplified by the finding that full-time minimum wage earners can’t afford rent anywhere in the country.
We tolerate this because the alternative of being unable to pay for rent, healthcare, education and childcare could throw your entire livelihood in jeopardy. Capitalists leverage this lack of a safety net as an indirect mode of coercion against the working class. Smaller capitalists, or the petit bourgeoisie, may run their businesses like tyrants and exploit workers even more harshly than large corporations because our monopolistic economy puts extra pressure on so-called “small businesses.”
Larger capitalists use their experience and wealth, sapped from the wages of the working class, to develop complex routines for workers to follow and a means to enforce it. Amazon, for example, was revealed to have a variety of ways to track the activity of drivers, workers on break and more, either using hidden cameras or Pinkerton spies.
As individuals, we might have to submit to this suffocating reality within the American economy; we would be forced to earn insufficient wages until the next inevitable economic crisis of capitalism throws the working class to the dogs once more as the government prioritizes the interests of private capital. As a collective, however, we have insurmountable power. This is why unions are fighting back against their employers, and employees facing anemic wages and power-tripping bosses are quitting or resigning at unprecedented rates.
It is beneficial to all students to pay attention to what’s going on in labor for a variety of reasons, but the most important one is that the majority of us will be in that situation after our education. I know personally that as soon as this semester ends, I’ll be donning my retail vest and working in conditions that could be easily alleviated with a unionized workplace.
Furthermore, the power of the unified labor force testifies to the collective power we face as students when we mobilize here at UConn. The high costs of tuition and housing, the underfunding of mental health services, overfunding of police and UConn’s investments in the fossil fuel industry and military-industrial complex are all fixtures that we can only address through collective struggle.
Student activism can take many forms from sit-ins to withholding tuition, and it takes a sober look at the issues we face to know which tactic is right for now; however, what we do know from the teachings of a resistant working class is that if we continue to view ourselves as disparate individuals instead of a community with influence, the capitalist economy will continue to exploit us for everything we have. Happy Striketober, everyone.