The Great Strike of 2021: Millions of U.S. Workers Abandon Job Market 

Interview with Jack Rasmus, author of The Scourge of Neoliberalism: U.S. Economic Policy from Reagan to Trump, conducted by Scott Harris

As the year comes to an end, the U.S. appears to be in the midst of a wave of worker strikes. Earlier in 2021, 800 nurses at St. Vincent hospital in Massachusetts went on strike, as did 1,100 coalminers in Alabama  – both strikes continue. During the summer, Frito-Lay factory workers went on strike; followed by union members at Nabisco. More than 14,000 workers at cereal maker Kellogg’s followed suit. Last week, 10,000 John Deere workers went out on strike. Sixty thousand film and television union workers averted a planned nationwide strike after negotiators reached a tentative deal.

In the second year of the coronavirus pandemic, fewer people are in the workforce, with many employers desperate to hire staff.  After decades of austerity and growing income inequality, workers now have more leverage to demand a living wage and basic benefits.

While the COVID-ravaged U.S. economy appeared to be in the midst of a robust recovery this spring, the latest figures from the Labor Department reveal a slowdown in the number of jobs refilled across the country as of September. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Jack Rasmus, author and professor in the economics and politics departments at St. Mary’s College. Here, Rasmus explains that beyond the growing number of formal union strikes across America, there are an estimated 9 million U.S. workers not returning to work out of choice. In effect, he says, they’re withholding their labor, and on strike for something better.

JACK RASMUS: You see, a strike is, very simply put, you withhold your labor, right? You don’t to go back to work. You withhold your labor. That’s true in an economic strike when you’re in a union, you walk out, you withhold your labor. But what’s going on now is this huge wave of at least half of the unemployed out there, I believe 4 million or 5 million, at least who are choosing that to go back to work — there was withholding their labor because the jobs are so poor. Other wages are so low.

And a lot of these jobs, people were getting jacked around, in terms of their work schedules. It was shut down and partial open and shut down and so forth. And, you know, they just see no future in those kinds of jobs and they’re not coming back. And by the way, it’s true across all industries in the United States because the low paid — those who are temp workers, part-time workers, gig workers — there’s at least nine to 10 million people out there who haven’t come back to work.

And I’m saying about half of those probably are not coming back to work for reasons of choice. Not because the jobs are not there, but for reasons of choice. Now that 5 million people is a big number and you can get it from the government’s data. The employment situation reports, it’s all there across industries. For example, you’d be surprised, but, supposedly you know, manufacturing is going gangbusters. They sell 350,000 below what they were before COVID. Education, about 700,000 people haven’t come back. Professional personal services. We’re talking about 400,000. We’re talking about maybe that many and the leisure hospitality. So it’s across the board. You’ll see, because across the board we’ve developed this phenomenon, they’re labor markets of low paid, and few, if any benefits, terrible work schedules, exploited by their employers, jacked around, abused and no hope of the future.

You see people who had to work a couple jobs, two, three jobs sometimes to make ends meet, they’re coming out of this COVID thing and saying, Hey, I can’t do this rest of my life. I better find something different, something better, and that’s why they’re holding out. Now. They can hold out also because, you know, maybe their spouses working to say, and bring in enough, just enough money that they can weather the storm, or maybe they’re still getting unemployment benefits, one or two of them in the family. You know, they cut out the special unemployment benefits, but they didn’t cut out the state unemployment benefits pays less, but there’s still something there. And if you’re not working for example, at least you may be getting Medicaid. I, or maybe even getting COBRA paid, because of you know, the steam, it was bill.

If you go back to these, these lousy jobs, you get no medical coverage. You see, and maybe some of them are getting some money now, starting July for childcare. And of course, they’re probably having a hell of a time finding childcare. It’s a big problem, affordability and availability of childcare. So one of them is staying home, watching the kids, and there’s all kinds of different ways that they’re making ends meet. You know, workers can be very clever and versatile when it comes to trying to survive in a strike, you know, very pragmatic.

SCOTT HARRIS: As you said, workers across the country are leaving their jobs or not returning to their jobs by the millions in part, because of the inequality issue in looking for something better in terms of wages and benefits. What’s been the response of the labor movement to date, to a workforce that’s more open and enthusiastic to joining a union and collective action that we haven’t seen in decades. And of course this comes as the labor movement has been losing membership for the last 40 years. This seems like a once in a generation opportunity for the labor movement to start to expand once again. What do you think?

JACK RASMUS: Yeah, well, that’s a very important observation because you would think that the unions seeing this much of a movement on the part of the unorganized would jump into that arena and really find a way of connecting to those workers and then organizing them. But you don’t see it. You don’t see it because the workers in the private sector have become so weak. There’s only like 6 percent of private sector unionized now you know, these neoliberal policies have decimated, destroyed unions in the private sector. A lot of it moving jobs off shore. Some of it displacing jobs, with machinery, free trade has done it. They’ll a whole list of policies have you know, just about wiped out the private sector and the unions are just barely holding on, you know, to the membership they got. And there’s no real leadership at the top of the AFL-CIO, that’s saying, oh, well, let’s have an offensive here. You know, it looks like the troops want to do something. You know, I wouldn’t put down though. The fact that the employers have the law behind them, so much now when it comes to union organizing, it’s really an uphill battle for unions, but even itself, you know, it would be a great opportunity now with obviously workers are beginning to move for the union moment to take the lead in all this, define a strategy that combines all of this discontent out there.

For more information, visit The Great Strike of 2021 by Jack Rasmus at jackrasmus.com/2021/10/12/the-great-strike-of-2021.

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