You may be forgiven for having the strange feeling this week that America has suddenly been seized by a very retro kind of labor revolution. If you don’t track these things closely, it may have snuck up on you. Better get your marching shoes. This party is just getting started.
In March, 800 nurses at St Vincent hospital in Massachusetts went on strike. In April, 1,100 coalminers in Alabama went on strike. (Both of those groups are still on strike) In July, Frito-Lay factory workers went on strike; they were followed in August by their union siblings at Nabisco factories, and, this month, by those who work at Kellogg’s factories.
Last week, 10,000 John Deere workers went out on strike, and 60,000 film and television workers in the union IATSE went to the very precipice of the most massive strike of all. Interspersed in these have been hundreds of other strikes, or near-strikes – from healthcare workers, factory workers, university workers and more. The cumulative effect of all of this has been a weirdly invigorating feeling that has gripped the nation, as Hemingway once said, gradually, then suddenly.
Americans aren’t used to this. Everyone over the age of 30 is still working through a neoliberal psychological hangover, a deeply rooted resignation in the face of the long-running primacy of the shareholder class. That feeling is the product of decades of Democratic politicians who have mostly seen organized labor as a group that is supposed to write them checks, shut up and be happy they are not actively trying to crush them, like the Republicans are.
Ever since Ronald Reagan fired the striking air traffic controllers 40 years ago, there has been a distinct public perception that labor was on the back foot in the fight against the mighty steamroller of global capital. Despite some isolated bright spots, this perception has mostly been true. The sudden specter of workers publicly asserting their own power on the national stage can seem a little freaky to many Americans, who peek out tentatively like survivors emerging from a nuclear fallout shelter, only to find that a huge dance party has started outside.