People in developing countries such as India would find it difficult to believe that employees strike work in the United States of America. Such a possibility would be inconceivable especially for residents of Kerala who witness innumerable agitations every day.
While a section of people in the state admires the US for its strike-free workplaces, others feel sympathy for workers there who are reportedly exploited by an apolitical system. However, both these situations are changing rapidly.
The year 2023 is a landmark year in American history as the country has already witnessed a series of major agitations.
The first strike that took the US by storm started in May this year when the Writers’ Guild of America launched a boycott of work which lasted 148 days. Soon, other sections of the US workforce such as the actors’ association, Starbucks employees, healthcare sector staff and employees of the package delivery firm UPS also went on strike, raising various demands. Agitations by several other trade unions – both big and small – followed. The latest association of workers to start a strike is United Auto Workers’ Union, the biggest union in the automobile manufacturing sector in the US having 1.5 lakh members. All these strikes had a major adverse impact on the industrial, construction, healthcare and cultural sectors in the US.
Even though the corporate firms and political leadership initially ignored these agitations, they were later forced to enter into talks with the unions as most of the demands raised by workers such as pay hike, safety at the workplace; job security; pension and health insurance were genuine.
Over 80,000 persons took part in the strike by actors and writers- a major achievement as the work culture in the US is not conducive to any form of protest. Moreover, data shows that there has been a very significant increase in the number of workers striking work in the country.
Adverse labour laws
Meanwhile, experts confirm that several labour laws in the US are generally anti-workers. Incidentally, a large number of people in Kerala mockingly refer to the US as a capitalist country. The reference is true in many ways. This is because sacking a worker is very easy under the Federal Labour Laws in the US. Moreover, most of the labour laws favour employers and are against the interests of workers. In such a scenario, unions don’t find it easy to ensure the presence of a significant number of workers in strikes. Similarly, with adverse labour laws, acceptance of the workers’ demands is uncertain.
Even amid this disadvantageous situation, thousands of employees have struck work in 2023.The workers were compelled to act as issues such as discrepancies in pay, lack of pay hikes proportionate to inflation and job insecurity have been haunting them for long.
'Gen Z’ makes the difference
The importance and membership of trade unions had declined in the US after the 1980s, mainly owing to labour laws which were not at all beneficial for employees. But how did everything change so drastically?
According to the international media such as BBC, a new generation of Americans, who are referred to as ‘Gen Z’, was behind the new aggression displayed by trade unions. Even though the membership of unions declined, the current generation of workers is deeply loyal and supportive to the organised functioning of unions. In fact, the Center for American Progress refers to Gen Z as the ‘most pro-union generation.’ Surprisingly, a recent survey revealed that 71-percent of Americans were of the opinion that trade unions are essential.
According to observers, those belonging to the new generation were attracted to trade unions owing to the circumstances they grew up in. For instance, the youngsters witnessed the struggles of their worker-parents in life. Most of these workers never could realize their dreams, even though they had started working with high hopes. While such employees were facing uncertainties in life, the COVID-19 pandemic struck and the situation became worse. During the time of the pandemic, even paid sick leave and health benefits were denied to unorganised workers. Shockingly, PPE kits were not given to them.
At the same time, organised workers who were members of trade unions could demand and get their needs fulfilled. This development encouraged workers to organize themselves.
Youngsters belonging to the new generation are considered to be self-centred. Even youngsters in Kerala who engaged in selfless efforts to rescue people during calamities such as the massive floods of 2018 were accused of being apolitical and selfish by others. But, a recent study by Stanford University says that those born between 1995 and 2010 prefer to work as a group and have the necessary skills in this regard. These youths have the determination to achieve goals by being part of a team, says the study. Observers said that it was not surprising that these youth had attained leadership positions in the recent agitations in the US.
Massive public support
Yet another notable feature of the new strike culture in the US is the widespread support it has gained from the general public. According to a study, 60 per cent of the US citizens feel that the pay of employees should be increased proportionally to the rise in income of employers. People believe that companies are bound to provide regular pay hikes to their staff. Even though the public was aware that the additional expenses caused by such hikes would be passed on to them, they were firm in the support for workers. In fact, another survey showed that 50-percent of the Americans were in favour of the strike by the United Auto Workers’ Union.
The Gen Z also utilized the potential of social media to garner support for their cause. By carrying out awareness campaigns on social media, the workers could make people aware of their demands.
The US President Joe Biden raised crucial points while visiting the striking workers belonging to the United Auto Workers’ Union. “As a Senator, I addressed such agitations back in 1973. However, this is my first speech at a strike after becoming the President. Workers helped the automobile industry to survive during the crisis of 2008. You made big sacrifices at that time. The companies were in deep trouble at that time. But the industry is robust now and you also should share the benefits. Continue the strike,” he said.
Similarly, a host of celebrities announced their support for the strike by actors and writers. These celebrities also provided subsistence allowance to the protesting workers.
According to experts, the strike culture in the US is certain to gain in strength. With the agitations achieving the desired goals, more people would be inspired to take up protests for their cause.
The 148-day strike by the Writers' Guild ended on September 24 with most of the demands being met. The protest by actors also was called off after an assurance was given that the major demands would be fulfilled.