America Is About to Witness the Biggest Labor Movement It’s Seen in Decades
It took 40 years and a pandemic to stir up a worker revolution that’s about to hit corporate America
In September 1945, a little-remembered frenzy erupted in the United States. Japan had surrendered, ending World War II, but American meat packers, steelworkers, telephone installers, telegraph operators, and auto assemblers had something different from partying in mind. In rolling actions, they went on strike. After years of patriotic silence on the home front, these workers, along with unhappy roughnecks, lumberjacks, railroad engineers, and elevator operators — some 6 million workers in all — shut down their industries and some entire cities. Mainly they were seeking higher pay — and they got it, averaging 18% increases.
The era of raucous labor is long past, and worker chutzpah along with it. That is, it was — until now. Desperately needed to staff the basic economy while the rest of us remain secluded from Covid-19, ordinarily little-noticed workers are wielding unusual leverage. Across the country, cashiers, truckers, nurses, burger flippers, stock replenishers, meat plant workers, and warehouse hands are suddenly seen as heroic, and they are successfully protesting. For the previous generation of labor, the goal post was the 40-hour week. New labor’s immediate aims are much more prosaic: a sensible face mask, a bottle of sanitizer, and some sick days.
The question is what happens next. Are we watching a startling but fleeting moment for newly muscular labor? Or, once the coronavirus is beaten, do companies face a future of vocal workers aiming to rebuild lost decades of wage increases and regained influence in boardrooms and the halls of power?
For now at least, some of the country’s most powerful CEOs are clearly nervous. Late last month, Apple, faced with reporters asking about a company decision to furlough hundreds of contract workers without pay, did a quick about-face. Those employees, Apple now said, would receive their hourly wages. A few weeks earlier, after Amazon warehouse…