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More workers in a number of industries are on strike for higher wages to keep up with inflation, while a tight labor market has taken some of the risk of layoffs away.
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Over the past few weeks, thousands of teachers in Ohio and Washington, nursing home workers in Pennsylvania and psychiatrists in California have taken to the streets after contract negotiations broke down over wages and other issues. Other workers staged one-day strikes in an attempt to consolidate coffee shops, distribution centers and other jobs.
According to a strike tracking system created by researchers at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, there were 180 strikes involving approximately 78,000 workers in the first six months of this year, compared with 102 strikes involving 26,500 workers in the same period a year earlier.
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A growing number of unions and employers are also getting into tough contract negotiations, fraught with strikes. Workers’ demands include higher inflation-adjusted wages as well as better working conditions, reflecting how the pandemic has changed jobs and how many people feel about their jobs.
Last week, a tentative deal brokered by the Biden administration averted a railroad strike due to start on Friday, largely due to scheduling and work-life balance issues. A strike would disrupt many sectors of the economy, from mining and agriculture to suburban rail transport. The agreement, which has yet to be approved by the unions, provides for a 24% wage increase over five years.
“As long as the labor market remains good and people can find work and inflation is high, there is less risk of a strike,” said Arthur Wheaton, director of labor studies at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
After additional breaks this summer, the total number of strikes this year has risen to 267.
This includes 72 strikes at Starbucks Corp.-owned coffee shops and nine strikes at Amazon.com Inc. premises. against the backdrop of a surge in union organizing campaigns this year.
For employers, the combination of high inflation, which hit 8.3% in August, and national unemployment of 3.7% is putting more pressure on labor negotiations.
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With a tight job market where hiring is tight and turnover is high, companies are also facing questions about how much they can raise wages to meet worker expectations as a recession threatens to loom, said Michael Lotito, co-chair of Workplace. Policy Institute at Littler, a law firm that represents employers during contract negotiations.
“This is a very, very contentious time,” he said. “It’s hard as hell to know what you’re going to agree to.”
Mr. Lotito said he believed that many unions would now view the pay increase in the preliminary railway agreement as a measure of successful negotiations. “I think it will give the unions the courage to demand more,” he said.
He and others also say that after more than two years of the Covid-19 pandemic, many workers are running high because their work has become harder or more dangerous, or because they don’t feel like they’ve received the respect they deserve from employers.
These frustrations are particularly visible in the healthcare sector, where the pandemic has taken an emotional toll on nurses and others.
This week in Minnesota, there are more than 15,000 nurses at 13 Minneapolis Street hospitals. Paul and Duluth went on a three-day strike seeking a 30% pay rise within three years. They returned to work without resolving the contract dispute.
In Pennsylvania, 700 nursing home workers employed by three companies ended a week-long strike on Tuesday. SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania left with an average markup of 9% in the first year and up to 18% by the end of the three-year contract. Fees for some starting positions have gone up to $17 an hour from $13. The union has also achieved the desired ratio of nurses to patients.
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Shelly Robinson, a certified nursing assistant at a nursing home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, said she would receive a $2.75 an hour raise in her first year, up from her current salary of just over $20 an hour.
Ms Robinson, who said she is treating up to 30 patients at a time, recalled how Covid “spread like wildfire” through her facility two years ago. She also said that her weekly grocery bill for her and her two children has increased by $50 this year.
“This increase was necessary for us,” she said.
Company representatives could not be contacted for comment.
More than 2,000 psychiatrists in California and Hawaii have been on strike at Kaiser Permanente for a month now. The union says it will accept a 4% pay increase in the first year of the contract and 3% in the second and third years. But he says he wants Kaiser to shorten the time it takes for patients to book appointments, which the union says can take eight weeks or more in some cases.
“People can’t provide the care they need,” said Sal Rosselli, president of the National Health Workers Union, whose members were picketing in Sacramento, Fresno and Oakland as temperatures hit 100 degrees on some days.
A Kaiser spokesman said he responded to the workers’ underlying concerns about wages and workload and that the strike should never have taken place because both sides were making progress.
“The time has come to end this strike,” the spokesman said. “We sincerely listened to the priorities of our therapists and responded to the demands of their union representatives.”
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The surge in strikes this year has yet to reach the level of 2018, when there were massive teacher strikes in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma and other states. More than 500,000 teachers and other workers went on strike that year, according to a Cornell researcher.
A long-standing strike by 1,100 miners at an Alabama coal mine that began on April 1, 2021 also shows no signs of resolving soon.