10/4/2019, 6 a.m.
More than 2,200 nurses at the University of Chicago Medical Center went out on strike recently, but they are not alone. American workers are waking up and walking out.
On Sept. 15, General Motors’ 46,000 hourly United Auto Workers union employees went on strike, the first time in 12 years. Striking British Airway pilots grounded 1,700 planes. In Republican states like Oklahoma and West Virginia, teachers shut down schools last year to demand that state legislatures reverse the deep cuts exacted from public education. Marriott hotels were hit with the largest hotel strike in U.S. history, a walkout of 6,000 hotel workers in four states.
The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that a soaring number of workers went on strike or stopped work in 2018 — 485,000 — the most since 1986. The rising number of strikes reflect the reality of President Trump’s economy. Despite all his boasting about the “economic miracle,” most workers aren’t experiencing it. Corporate profits have soared, but workers haven’t shared the benefit.
The president’s tax scam went largely to the rich and the corporations. Corporate promises of wage and investment hikes were largely discarded, with CEOs using the tax breaks mostly to buy back stocks, boosting their stock bonuses and shafting their workers. Gilded age inequality is combined with rising insecurity for working people.
Even now, wages finally have begun to rise, but still are not catching up to soaring costs in basics like health care and education. Just 22 percent of workers have a pension plan of any kind at work. And 40 percent of Americans say they would be forced to borrow or sell something to cover a $400 emergency. One in five say they know someone addicted to opioids or painkillers.
The GM strike comes after workers sacrificed big time to help GM out of bankruptcy dur- ing the Great Recession. Now GM’s profits are up and CEO bonuses are up, but workers who shared the pain haven’t shared in the gain. They are striking for decency, for higher wages, for strong health care plans, for turning more temporary workers — who get no benefits — into per- manent workers with pensions, health care and vacations.
The strike wave last year was led by teachers in deep red states. In each state, Republican legislatures had slashed spending on education during the Great Recession and cut taxes on the wealthy. When the economy turned around, they didn’t restore the spending cuts.
Teachers sick of futile negotiations with local school boards walked off the job and took their case directly to the legislatures. They demanded not only higher salaries, but in many cases, smaller classes and greater state spending on their students. They got massive support from
parents and the community. In each case, right wing state legislators were forced to respond by increasing spending, although not to the levels sought by the striking teachers.
The wave of strikes increasingly is propelled by younger workers. Fight for $15, the movement to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, was led by young workers in fast food restaurants and other service industries.
Young people, often burdened with college debt, entering work-places characterized by wages and benefits that don’t keep up with costs, are particularly aware of how the economy has been rigged against them. Large majorities think CEOs are greedy and irresponsible. Large majorities think politicians have been corrupted by entrenched interests and big money. They are driving the demand for change.
President Trump, for all his populist posturing, remains oblivious, wedded to the conservative Republican agenda, opposed to unions, to raising the minimum wage, to investing in teachers and education and getting health care costs under control.
But every leading Democratic contender for president champions worker power, calling for reforms to make it easier to organize, for lifting the minimum wage, for making vital public investments and for cracking down on the entrenched interests that have rigged the economy against working people. The words of the old union ballad “Which Side Are You On?” once more echo across the country.
The writer is founder and president of the national Rainbow PUSH Coalition.