By Caitlin Kelly
For the first time since 2009, thousands of American workers are on strike or soon to be on strike — from 60,000 members of IATSE who work on TV shows and film to nurses in Massachusetts to the 10,000 John Deere workers in Illinois. Iowa and Kansas. Cereal makers are on strike.
We’re seeing history.
For decades, American workers — many doing dangerous, tedious jobs — have suffered stagnant wages, while their corporate masters earning record profits blew that money on stock buybacks and massive compensation, like 300 times that of their lowest-paid workers. The federal minimum wage is a pathetic $7.25, in a time of such inflation that Social Security just boosted its payments a record 9.5 percent.
Americans workers have, for a variety of reasons, felt — and been — powerless.
Now thousands are quitting, leaving retail, hospitality, medicine and even trucking scrambling to hire new staff.
The country has long had very low union membership, not even 15 percent.
This is a nation with no paid maternity leave, no mandated sick days or vacation days.
A nation of “at will”employment — an abomination that means any employer can fire you any time for NO reason.
I grew up in Canada and spent my 25th year on a journalism fellowship based in Paris, where every newspaper had an alphabet soup of unions to memorize. And French workers have never been shy about showing their force.
The immense power American employers hold over their staff has always shocked me deeply, and the cowed obedience they get in return.
But if your only access to affordable health insurance is by getting and keeping your job, even if you hate it, what choice do you have?
And COVID has now killed 700,000 Americans — a number too large to make sense of really.
So there are simply thousands of fewer workers; basic economics mean when there are fewer people ready to take your job offer, you may have to make it a lot more appealing than you used to.
I watch this powerful and inspiring movement from the sidelines of self-employment, where I and my husband have been for 15 and six years respectively.
There are many challenges to working freelance, from finding well-paying, reliable clients to getting paid quickly to managing our own taxes and costs of health insurance unsubsidized by an employer.
But it offers a very significant source of power, the one — belatedly and long overdue — now being wielded by so many fed-up, exhausted and pissed-off American workers.
We can, and do, withdraw our skilled labor from abusive, cheap clients.
We can, and do, set our own pay rates.
We can, and do, arrange our work schedule to best suit our needs.
We can, and do, take sick days and vacations.
Once you have discovered your own autonomy — not everyone wants to or can hustle this hard! — it’s difficult-to-impossible to imagine re-assuming the absurdities imposed by too many employers and public policy that routinely ignores what workers need and want.
Have you ever just quit a miserable job?