Welcome back to On the Picket Line! This is the second edition of our column dedicated to detailing some of the current strikes and struggles waged by workers across the country. One aim of the column is to draw attention to the struggles of workers, especially industrial workers, who are all too often ignored by not only the capitalist press, but the socialist press as well.
For workers, the current period has been characterized by an expanding jobs market and an ongoing, if irregular, economic recovery. In some cases, these conditions have opened up opportunities for workers to engage in struggle. Currently, there are three large-scale industrial strikes taking place across the country. These are the strikes by some 1,100 UMWA coal miners at Warrior Met Coal in Alabama, the strike by 1,300 USW members at nine steel plants in the Northeast and the Midwest owned by the company Allegheny Technologies Inc., and the strike by 2,900 UAW autoworkers at the sprawling Volvo trucks plant in Dublin, Virginia. (The UMWA and USW strikes, both of which have been going on for more than two months, are detailed in the first issue of On the Picket Line, published in May. In addition, the UAW strike at Volvo is discussed in a detailed article published this week, “Volvo Workers Back on Strike at Virginia Trucks Plant.”)
For its part, the ruling class has sought to take action to prevent the conditions of the economic recovery from boosting working-class confidence and forcing a substantial hike in wages. In the past month, some 25 state governments have announced that they will be ending the $300 supplemental unemployment benefit program, which has been in place for most of the pandemic, for all out-of-work workers in advance of the planned federal expiration of the program in September. Most of these states are also cutting off unemployment benefits entirely for gig workers and the self-employed. All told, CNBC estimates that around 3.7 million workers will be impacted by the ending of these benefits in the affected states. This action – the direct product of widespread pressure by employers on their political agents in the capitalist state – represents a wholesale attack on the working class. By cutting off supplemental unemployment benefits early, the bosses are hoping to expand what Marx calls the “reserve army of the unemployed” and ensure that they can hire on new workers without meaningfully boosting pay.
Nonetheless, the job market is expanding markedly for working people. The Labor Department announced earlier this month that, in May, U.S. employers added some 559,000 jobs. This report comes after an unexpectedly low increase in jobs as detailed in the Labor Department report for April – a development that helped fuel the capitalist-led push to cut unemployment benefits for hard-hit workers. Within this context, the Biden administration and both capitalist parties have been busy putting together legislation aimed at boosting imperialist competition with China and expanding corporate profits. These initiatives include the $250 billion U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, which will provide some $52 billion in public money for corporate subsidies and giveaways to semiconductor companies that are in the process of building a slew of new domestic chip manufacturing facilities in Arizona, Texas, and elsewhere. It also includes Biden’s now somewhat downscaled infrastructure bill, which is currently the subject of ongoing debate and proposals by the capitalist parties.
All this and more form the backdrop for the current struggles waged by workers across the country and the class struggle more generally. What follows are accounts of some of the important current strikes and struggles being waged by our class. Notably, in addition to the strikes covered below and mentioned above, other struggles of note include the lockout of some 650 oil refinery workers, organized through USW Local 13-243, at the ExxonMobil facility in Beaumont, Texas and the protracted lockout of 200 Teamsters at the Marathon refinery in St. Paul Park, Minnesota.
Rocky Mount Engine Plant Workers Win Concessions Following Walkoff
Workers at the Rocky Mount Engine Plant (RMEP) in North Carolina walked off the job on April 27 in response to management’s unilateral decision to restructure shift assignments. The proposed change was dictated to work team leaders, who then turned around and organized alongside shop floor workers to oppose the changes. After attempting to trick workers into returning to work by falsely claiming that various teams at the plant had returned to work, management conceded to the workers’ collective action and announced that they would scrap the new shift assignments a day later.
While there is a union at RMEP, UE Local 150, it is not a typical union. It is organized on a minority basis, an adaptation to the harsh anti-worker legal terrain in North Carolina. Despite only counting a minority of workers among its dues-paying membership, UE Local 150 has been able to successfully win concessions from management, as well as political change in the city of Rocky Mount, by combining their organizing at the worksite with organizing around broader community issues and relying on a strong base of community support. In particular, the union has taken up racial justice initiatives: for example, a campaign to recognize Martin Luther King Day as a holiday for workers in the early 1990s transformed into a political campaign which successfully unseated the all-white elected government of majority-Black Rocky Mount. Despite the lack of a formal union contract, the union is able to protect workers by forcing management to respect rules laid out in the company’s employee handbook and policies, and frequently calls out management’s racist selective enforcement of such policies. Local 150 also regularly publishes a newsletter for RMEP workers, Unity News, which it uses to both inform workers of their rights and to inform them of and rally them against management’s abuses.
Manufacturing Workers in Tonawanda, NY Strike Following Breakdown in Negotiations
Workers at a Unifrax industrial ceramic fiber plant initiated a strike on May 18 amid a breakdown of contract negotiations. The workers, represented by Steelworkers Local 2058, voted not to ratify a contract offer, which would replace a prior contract that expired at the end of January. Workers are demanding better wages, with union officials accusing Unifrax of pocketing government subsidies without making good on promises to create well-paying jobs.
Unifrax has hired scab labor to continue operating their plant while the strike continues as of press time.
Massachusetts Nurses Hold Strong, Stay Out on Strike
In Worcester, Massachusetts, around 700 members of the Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA) remain on strike this month after their employer, Saint Vincent Hospital, walked out of bargaining sessions. The strike began on March 8th, after Saint Vincent Hospital ignored numerous complaints from nurses about staffing shortages. On a website launched by the MNA, the union has pointed out the very real human costs of under-staffing, such as increased rates of patient falls, preventable bed sores, and delays in distribution of medication.
In an attempt to break the strike, the hospital has announced this month that they will be filling 50 nursing jobs, vacated during the strike on a permanent basis. While the nurses are staying strong, the length of the strike and the threat to replace strikers has begun to take its toll. Saint Vincent Hospital told the Boston Globe that 15 nurses have returned to work over the last month, raising the total number of nurses crossing the picket line to 145. Nevertheless, with an estimated 700 nurses still out on strike, the union remains confident that they will be victorious.
The strike has drawn attention to the record of the hospital’s parent company, Tenet Health, whose commitment to ignoring the public good in favor of their bottom line is well-established. While Tenet refuses to pay for adequate staffing at Saint Vincent Hospital, they have continued to rake in hundreds of millions of US taxpayer dollars. For example, the company made use of the COVID bailout bills to defer paying $250 million in taxes. Their penchant for gobbling up public funds goes beyond this kind of tax evasion, however. In 2016 Tenet was caught defrauding Medicare and forced to pay a $513 million fine by the Justice Department.
Indeed, while nurses filed complaint after complaint about the dangers of understaffing at Saint Vincent Hospital, the hospital ranked as one of Tenet’s most profitable assets. According to the union, in 2019 Saint Vincent Hospital boasted a profit margin of 14 percent, four times the state average for hospitals. It is obvious that Tenet can afford to pay for the changes demanded by the MNA. However, the company is reluctant to do anything that might lower the profit margin at their hospitals.Thus, the nurses’ struggle in Worcester boils down to a fight to make a healthcare conglomerate actually spend its money to adequately pay for the costs of providing quality healthcare to their community.
As of publication the strike is ongoing.
Nurses at SF’s Chinese Hospital Stage One-Day Strike Amid Contract Negotiations
On Tuesday, May 25th, nurses at the Chinese Hospital in San Francisco, CA staged a 1-day strike to protest poor working conditions and insufficient pay. The nurses are represented by California Nurses’ Association (CNA) and have been negotiating a collective bargaining contract with the Chinese Hospital since February 2020. Among other things, nurses called attention to the fact that bedside nurses do not receive any meal or relief breaks on their shifts. The contract under negotiation would be the first collective bargaining contract for nurses at the Chinese Hospital.
The Chinese Hospital caters to the large Chinese community in San Francisco, and receives many Chinese-speaking patients, requiring much of the nursing staff to be bilingual, an extra skill set needed for employment, and one that could give them additional leverage against the hospital. It is the only such hospital in the United States.
Contract negotiations are ongoing as of press time.