Thousands of workers across industries are going on strike. From Dunkin’ workers to Hollywood actors and screenwriters, the American labor movement has reached a boiling point. Labor attorneys and workers’ rights advocates say the country’s growing inequities and rising cost of living are the driving forces behind the movement that continues to build momentum.
According to data from the American Enterprise Institute, average wages have stagnated since the 1970s. Average real wages have grown by only 0.7% over the half-century since February 1973. This stagnation has left working-class people living off minimum wage with diminished buying power. According to Ana Pardo, the co-director of the Workers’ Rights Project at the North Carolina Justice Center, other factors have also contributed to the movement, including the loss of manufacturing jobs, which historically were better paid and easier to organize. Service-sector jobs, which have traditionally been ignored in terms of wages and benefits, have replaced manufacturing jobs.
“We have what is increasingly shifting toward being a service sector-based economy, and we’ve [never] really thought a lot about why those jobs might need to be paying well,” Pardo said. “There are these big hits that working people took over the last several decades.”
At least 453,000 workers have participated in 312 strikes in the U.S. this year, according to Johnnie Kallas, a Ph.D. candidate and the project director of Cornell University’s Labor Action Tracker. More than 75,000 Kaiser Permanente workers alone walked off the job in the health care sector in multiple states. Some 25,000 auto workers who are part of The United Auto Workers went on strike against General Motors, Stellantis, and Ford after the union’s contract expired in mid-September. In 2022, more than 16 million workers in the U.S. were represented by a union—an increase of 200,000 from 2021. Workers from some of the largest corporations, namely Amazon and Starbucks, led the movement in 2021. Now, it’s spreading across industries.
In Atlanta, Dunkin’ workers went on strike last month. The strike lasted five days after they sent a list of demands to their store management team. Workers asked for fair compensation and improved working conditions in the fast food industry. The Dunkin’ workers were joined by the Union of Southern Service Workers, including Columbia, South Carolina, Waffle House workers who recently went on strike over similar issues at their store.
“I’ve worked here for over 10 years, and I have tried to move up in this company. But I still only make $9.50 an hour,” said Melvin Philips, a Dunkin’ worker at the downtown Atlanta store. “When I asked for a raise, Dunkin’ management laughed in my face.”
The workers demand that Dunkin’ raise their wages, provide benefits for full-time staff, and respect their right to organize their workplace.
“My coworkers and I are on strike today because we need more money and more hours. They act like it costs them a whole lot to give me a quarter raise. The price goes up on the products all the time. But our pay is the same,” said Devan Jordan, who has worked at Dunkin’ for 9 years and is paid $10 an hour. “Dunkin’ doesn’t care about how we’re living. The customers think we’re happy because we’re smiling and saying good morning, but we’re struggling. ”
Workers in low-wage sectors frequently cannot take days off when they are sick or when their children are sick.
“I think a lot of people’s imaginations have been so limited by this brutally destructive form of capitalism and employment that we have here in North Carolina in particular, that they can’t even imagine that they deserve paid time off for long-term illness, for long-term caregiving situations,” Pardo said. “Particularly in the service sector, workers are pressured to go to work sick. They feel like they have to because they can’t afford to pay all their bills if they miss a day of work or three days of work.”
Pardo’s organization has led the charge in North Carolina by introducing a bill for paid sick leave for service workers, but every year it dies in committee.
“Especially coming out of the pandemic, it’s one of the most commonsense policies imaginable,” Pardo said. “I don’t know why we can’t get it done other than the Chamber of Commerce doesn’t want to see it done.”
Pardo hopes politicians understand that the economy is a circle, and the more a working-class person makes, the more they contribute back into the economy—as proven by the impacts of the Child Tax Credit. Pardo advocates for a universal standard income, where people receive a basic income to help support their lives. But without these support mechanisms, workers have grown frustrated, leading to what Pardo calls “a perfect storm” of organizing.
“We came into the pandemic with a workforce that was already feeling pretty beaten down and stripped of any dignity,” Pardo said. “We have a more vulnerable workforce, and I think employers like it that way.”
Pardo says the only thing that has brought her hope as a labor advocate, former union member, and activist and organizer is seeing how vibrant the movement is and how workers are harnessing their collective power.
“I really do feel like labor and the withholding of it is the one big power move we can make anymore,” said Pardo. “And so it’s been giving me a lot of hope and a lot of excitement for the future to see all these different efforts pop up … It speaks to the health of this budding new ecosystem of organized labor that we’re seeing all different forms of it.”