Workers Are Rising Up Across the Nation. It's Time for America to Listen | Opinion

This October, over 100,000 workers in industries as varied as manufacturing, health care, and filmmaking have authorized strikes. Many have tied the worker revolts to a COVID-induced labor shortage. But in truth, workers are taking direct action to improve their job quality due to a much more longstanding problem than the pandemic: the shortage of good jobs in the country.

The COVID economy has exposed and exacerbated longstanding trends of stagnant wages and poor working conditions—even as many companies generate near-record profits and executives pull down ever-increasing compensation. These trends have been particularly evident during the pandemic; workers risk their lives to produce goods and serve customers and yet are thanked with dramatically increased workloads and little to no increase in pay. The shortage of good jobs—those offering adequate pay and benefits—has also indirectly contributed to these strikes: Poor job quality coupled with the pandemic has shrunk the labor force, which in turn gives the remaining workers some leverage. Tight labor markets afford workers more power to push for improvements.

The solution to the shortage of good jobs is, of course, to improve job quality, creating an economy of well-paying jobs that offer benefits such as paid sick leave. The strikes we're seeing, along with the passage of President Biden's Build Back Better plan, are a good place to begin that process.

The impressive number of workers on strike or threatening to strike is particularly noteworthy because strikes involve great risks for workers; rent is still due when you are on strike, after all, which is why strikes are typically a last resort.

But reasoning with corporations and appealing to fairness has proved ineffective. Workers know that that their companies are highly profitable and their executives extremely well compensated, but they are being asked to accept modest raises that don't keep pace with the cost of living, cuts to their retirement plans, and stingier health care plans after, in some cases, working extreme overtime for months during the pandemic with few days off. Even when raises are on the table, they are dwarfed by executive salaries. All this is occurring after decades during which compensation has trailed the productivity gains that workers have helped create.

The scale of action we're seeing in this "Striketober" is also noteworthy because strikes and other coordinated activities are generally only doable among unionized workers—and just 6 percent of the private sector workforce is unionized. Half of all workers say they want to join a union, but the United States' broken labor laws make joining one very difficult, so each strike carries added significance. While strikes are the most visible form of protest, many non-union workers are also protesting the good job shortage by quitting their jobs in record numbers to find better pay and conditions from another employer.

And they aren't just responding to the pandemic. Over recent decades, economic power has tilted overwhelmingly toward the top and become totally unbalanced. Striketober strikes signifies workers' attempt to rebalance the economy. By walking off the job together, workers are demonstrating that their firms' success depends on them. They are trying to force executives to come back with better offers.

But despite its power, this moment is potentially fleeting. The sting of COVID inequalities, where frontline workers faced far more hardships than most of their managers, can fade, and labor markets have rarely been so tight in recent decades.

UAW members on strike in Michigan.
United Auto Workers members on strike in October 2019 outside the General Motors Lansing Delta Assembly plant in Lansing, Michigan. Thousands of UAW workers struck against John Deere, a farming equipment maker, on Thursday following failed contract negotiations. Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

In addition to the courageous strikers, we need policy change to rebalance power in the economy and ensure that all jobs are good jobs, especially in the long run. These policies include allowing workers to freely and fairly join unions; preventing companies from forcing workers to sign non-compete agreements that limit their ability to find better paying jobs; and eliminating forced arbitration agreements that deny workers the right to take companies to court. The country also needs full-employment policies, which ensure that workers can find a better job—and employers must respect that possibility.

President Biden's Build Back Better plan would help improve workers' rights and promote full employment. Congress is currently debating core components of the president's agenda, including its investments in roads, alternative energy, child care, and elder care, all of which are critical steps toward addressing the good jobs shortage. These investments can help stimulate the creation of good jobs, raise wages, and enable workers kept at home by caregiving responsibilities to join the labor market. Doing so will both increase the productive capacity of the economy and help create sustainably tight labor markets.

Companies and Congress should understand what workers are demanding through these strikes: an end to the shortage of good jobs. And they should work hard to comply.

David Madland is the author of Re-Union: How Bold Labor Reforms Can Repair, Revitalize, and Reunite the United States and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

The views in this article are the writer's own.