Last August, I wrote about the strike that began in the NBA when the Milwaukee Bucks refused to play in a playoff game. I said that the strike needed to spread and grow into a general strike, to respond to a host of grievances that had built up over time. I wanted some charismatic person or group to come forward and declare that labor was united across class, race, and gender lines; that the people were tired of having money and opportunity siphoned up to the very top of the income pyramid while the rest of us fought over scraps.
Nothing quite so dramatic happened. As the NBA strike seemed like it might be gathering steam, none other than former President Barack Obama himself stepped forward to break the strike and send the players back to the court for the most meager of concessions regarding voting access. It felt like a history-defining moment had been side-stepped, and the alliance of capital and the political elite had triumphed once again.
But a friend recently opened my eyes to the possibility that the strike did occur. In fact, it may still be going on at this moment. The evidence can be found in “Now Hiring” signs that are hanging in windows all across the state. It’s seen in splashy headlines in the New York Times such as “The Economic Rebound is Still Waiting for Workers.” Workers may not be walking out of their jobs and taking to the streets in the admittedly old-school way I imagined things. But it’s clear that workers are not working, and have seized the initiative in dictating the terms of their return.
As the Times article notes, the labor force shrank in September, and there are still millions fewer people working now than before the pandemic began. Experts point to savings that workers accrued during the pandemic thanks to increased government benefits, and the persistent fear of coronavirus, as reasons that workers are staying home.
People are also tired of working for low wages in jobs that don’t offer meaningful opportunities for advancement and growth. An NPR story points out that people are not only deciding not to go to work, they’re also quitting their jobs at incredibly high rates as well. The article states dryly that the experience of working during the pandemic has caused employees to reconsider what they’re looking for in a career.
And last but not least, there are real, good old-fashioned strikes happening all across the country. There’s the John Deere strike that is happening now; the recently ended Nabisco strike; and the narrowly averted IATSE strike of Hollywood stage employees.
All of these labor actions point to a massive movement among American workers. It may not have taken a clearly defined form like the French yellow-vest strikes of a few years ago, but workers across the country are taking a stand against exploitative labor practices by walking out, quitting, or simply refusing to participate.
They are also responding to the constant news drip of obscene wealth being hoarded right before their very eyes. Whatever gains American workers can make through their labor actions pale in comparison to the money flowing to the top 1%. Billionaires reportedly saw their wealth increase by over 60% during the pandemic, from $3 trillion before COVID-19 appeared to $4.8 trillion as of last summer. Such numbers sound made-up, but they are the reality of the wealth disparity in the United States.
Add to this that life is continuing to become more expensive for American workers, and eating away at those so-called financial gains, and you get the picture. According to the Washington Post, food prices will continue to increase throughout the rest of the year. Housing costs have also jumped in 2021, along with gasoline and other necessities for modern living.
Large numbers of people are fed up, and the political class is responding with a piecemeal policy that doesn’t understand or address their concerns. Here in Connecticut, the response has been to offer a $1,000 signing bonus to people who get back to work. According to Rent Cafe, $1,000 doesn’t cover the average rent in any of Connecticut’s largest communities.
A quiet but real labor movement is underway in the United States right now, and even I was blind to it after hoping it would happen. Those in charge need to be ready to respond to the demands being set forth.
Jamil Ragland writes and lives in East Hartford. You can read more of his writing at www.nutmeggerdaily.com.
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