Essential US workers spark labor upsurge

Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama, used creative means to fight for and eventually win the right to cast ballots by mail on whether to unionize their workplace. PHOTO: Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU)
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From Seattle to New York, strikes, sick-outs and protests over lack of PPE (personal protective equipment) have ignited a broader labor uprising spanning struggles against racism on the job, for hazard pay and unionization.

“Anger over racism was smoldering before Covid hit,” says Cheryl Jones, a 25-year veteran King County, Washington, bus driver. Jones, co-chair of Organized Workers for Labor Solidarity (OWLS), joined other transit workers at a press conference in April 2020 to expose the lack of PPE and safety precautions.

“You’ve got to stand up and hold people accountable, and it inspires others. So, when George Floyd was killed in May it set off a powder keg,” Jones recounted, explaining how OWLS’ campaign to “Root Out Racism at King County and Beyond” was launched to confront on-the-job racism. “The workplace is a microcosm of what’s happening in the world and people are rising up all over. We’ve got to strike while the iron is hot.”

A wave of strikes and protests. Early on, medical workers raised the alarm about Covid transmission, too few ICU beds, and sparse PPE supplies. “Essential workers” became popular heroes. Public approval of unions hit its highest point since 2003.

When pickets and media exposés failed to move the healthcare industry, workers resorted to strikes. Seven hundred nursing home staff in the Chicago area struck for 12 days and won a pay raise and better working conditions. Doctors at MultiCare in Washington successfully picketed for two days for N95 masks and shorter hours. And, 800 nurses in Worcester, Massachusetts, struck on International Women’s Day (March 8) because their demands for increased staffing were not met.

Frontline workers risk their lives to provide vital services. They are angry that lack of safety precautions and PPE are caused, not by shortages, but by willful neglect in order to protect profit margins. Covid death rates show workers of color and immigrants, unable to work from home, have been hit hardest. Emboldened by Black Lives Matter protests, low-paid Filipina nurses, Latinx fruit packers and Black transit workers demand not to be treated as expendable.

Hundreds of Latinx and Somali immigrants in meatpacking plants across the Midwest were among the first to walk out in the spring of 2020. Trump immediately ordered meat processing plants to stay open under the Defense Production Act.

Food chain workers continue to mobilize. In December, non-union poultry workers in Springdale, Arkansas, walked out over safety and low pay. Deaths of two seasonal workers from Mexico sparked job actions at Twin City Foods in Pasco, Washington. In January, 98% of that workforce voted to unionize. In February, after grocery conglomerates canceled employees’ hazard pay, unions convinced the Seattle City Council to mandate $4 per hour pandemic pay hikes at large grocery stores.

Recipe for labor unrest. Health experts see no quick end to the pandemic. Thousands of teachers, paraeducators and school bus drivers are pushing back against a return to in-person teaching. Inadequate school safety plans, lack of vaccines and high community transmission rates are the biggest concerns.

A worsening economic crisis also fuels unrest. Unemployment soars, small businesses fold and consumer spending, an engine of the U.S. economy, shrinks. Since last March, lack of childcare has left one million women out of work. Nearly 12 million renters owe an average of almost $6,000 in back rent and utilities. Meanwhile, 664 billionaires in the United States have accumulated a combined wealth of $4.2 trillion. Amazon reported a 200% rise in profits in 2020.

The new year opened with a six-day strike by 1,400 Teamsters at Hunts Point Market in Brooklyn, the largest U.S. produce distribution center. The multi-racial workers, with community support, fended off police attacks and frigid cold, and won wage increases.

In 2021, another 450 union contracts covering 1.5 million workers are due to expire — including many healthcare, city, state, school and postal employees. Having gotten a taste of their own power in the last year, workers are pushing their unions to go on the offensive. Bargaining unit zoom meetings have attracted record rank-and-file participation. After a year where many unions suspended regular meetings, members now need a voice, a vote, and action.

Union members are also in no mood to accept stalling by President Biden and the Democratic Party majority that labor helped elect to office. Their willingness to drop the $15 minimum wage from the pandemic recovery package is a warning that labor cannot rely on the twin parties of capitalism. Interest in an independent working-class party is bound to surge.

Now, all eyes are on Alabama. A historic union vote is underway by some 6,000 Amazon warehouse employees, the majority of whom are Black women. Amazon has poured $25 million into a “vote no” effort, but unions and community groups across the country have flocked to support them.

Chris Smalls, who led a walkout last March at Staten Island’s Amazon warehouse after workers began to fall ill, founded the Congress of Essential Workers, and recently met with the Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama.

Speaking with the Freedom Socialist, Smalls echoed Cheryl Jones in his belief that, “The Covid crisis gave labor an opportunity. It opened up all these other issues facing us as working people.” Asked about prospects for a working-class united front effort, Smalls responded, “That’s what we need. To combine the social injustice movements, the environmental movement and the labor movement together. Ultimately, we’re talking general strike, that’s the only way it’s gonna get done. I think you will probably see that within this next year. People are ready.”

Contact Docekal, a unionist and public-school worker, at

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