Dozens of union workers from Hollywood to the Midwest, emboldened by President Biden’s boasting that he is the most pro-union president in decades, have gone on strike or threatened to resign.
More than 100,000 are on the picket lines, and tens of thousands more could join them by the end of October, potentially sparking a wave of strikes unprecedented in the United States since the 1970s.
Unrest in industries, including agriculture and film production, threatens to further undermine an economy ravaged by rising inflation.
He is also setting up a political test for Mr Biden, who does not want to risk his support among union leaders but must contain the price spike ahead of next year’s midterm elections.
“These strikes are going to have an impact,” said Paul Clark, professor of social studies at Penn State University. “When employers raise wages, they raise prices to recoup what they pay in higher labor costs, so we’ll see some of that.”
On Thursday, more than 10,000 workers at farm equipment manufacturer Deere & Co. went on strike. They joined 1,400 workers at the Kellogg Co., more than 2,000 nurses and other hospital workers in Buffalo, New York, 700 nurses in Massachusetts and nearly 160 caregivers in Connecticut on the picket lines.
About 24,000 nurses and other healthcare workers at Kaiser Permanente authorized a strike this week, and 60,000 workers in the entertainment industry threatened to quit on Monday if their union failed to reach a deal with the TV studios and movies.
More than 12,000 Seattle-area carpenters returned to work this week after a three-week strike that halted construction in the Pacific Northwest.
The number of work stoppages has decreased in recent years due to declining union membership. In 2020, just eight strikes involved more than 1,000 workers, the lowest number since 1947, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Since 2010, only 2019 has recorded more than 20 such strikes. From 1980 to 2000, only 1997 recorded fewer than 30 larger strikes, according to the bureau.
The unions mainly cite systemic problems as the reason for the strike, including low wages, longer hours, poor working conditions and security concerns.
But more recent events, including Mr Biden’s pro-union stance and the worker shortage caused by COVID-19 closures, have given workers a boost.
“Right now the stars are aligned in favor of unions,” Clark said. “They both have low unemployment and you have a very friendly administration in Washington that supports the unions. Everything is in order for the unions to take advantage of the situation now. “
Mr. Biden introduced himself as a shameless friend from work.
As soon as he took office, he signed a decree making union job creation the top priority of his administration. In March, he made a video calling for the right of Amazon workers to organize. He touted his $ 4.7 trillion spending as a way to create well-paying union jobs.
“Clinton and Obama did not work,” Mr. Clark said. “Their rhetoric was pro-union, but their actions were not as favorable as the unions had hoped. Now you have Biden, whose rhetoric is more pro-union than those presidents, and he’s going all the way.
Asked about the wave of strikes, White House press secretary Jen Psaki doubled the president’s support for work.
“The president and vice-president often say that this is the most pro-union administration in history, and they will continue to govern and lead in that spirit,” she said.
“They both feel [that] firmly supporting unions, the ability of workers to organize if they wish, collective bargaining and the right to strike are fundamental rights, ”she said.
“In healthy economies, employers have to compete to recruit workers, and we see it,” Ms. Psaki said. “As unemployment falls, we are moving towards a market where workers have more bargaining power. In the end, that’s a good thing.
Ignoring notions that strikes could derail the economy, she said she had not heard this concern from the White House economics team.
Yet strikes affect the economy.
Since the Kellogg workers’ strike two weeks ago, the grain stock has fallen 6.5%. Deere & Co. shares fell 7% on Thursday after its workers hit the picket line.
Consumers are likely to be affected by higher prices for grains and other products by companies to offset higher labor costs.
Rising prices weighed on Mr Biden for most of his presidency. The Labor Department reported on Wednesday that consumer costs of goods and services rose 5.4% in September from a year earlier.
Inflation remains at its highest rate in more than a decade, and labor and material shortages caused by the pandemic are booming in the economy.
The Biden administration has argued that inflation is a transient effect of the pandemic rebound, but the Department of Labor report contradicts that claim.
Mark Mix, chairman of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, a conservative anti-union advocacy group, said inflation is a factor in social unrest. He noted that workers want higher wages to offset rising costs.
“When a mom goes to the store and sees that a box of cereal costs $ 5, she’s going to demand more pay,” he said. “The pulling of prices from inflation is something that is very much at stake in the market.”
If the strikes result in higher prices for commodities such as grains and farm equipment, Mr Biden will have a more difficult economic environment to navigate. National polls and focus groups have found that many Americans are worried about inflation and rising costs.
“These costs are going to hit the market,” Mr. Mix said. “This creates a very difficult political position: risk the wrath of union officials or risk the potential electorate as we enter a crucial year at the midpoint.”
Officials in the Biden administration have also played down the political impact of inflation.
Ms Psaki said on Wednesday that the timing of the inflation numbers did not match real-world perceptions.
“We all understand that the American people aren’t looking at cost-cost comparisons from this year to two years ago; they’re looking at cost-cost comparisons with their checkbooks from eight months ago or 12 months ago. And although, in fact, if you look back two years ago, things can be comparative. This is not the way people see it, ”she said.
Also on Wednesday, White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain gave a Harvard professor an approving retweet downplaying inflation as a “high class” problem.
“Most of the economic issues we face (inflation, supply chains, etc.) are upper class issues. We wouldn’t have had them if the unemployment rate was still 10%, ”wrote Jason Furman, who served as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Obama.
Despite the impact on rising prices, analysts doubt Mr. Biden is involved in labor disputes.
The president will not want to risk spoiling his relations with the unions by doing anything other than supporting the strikers.
Jon Shelton, a labor historian at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, said Mr Biden is unlikely to encourage workers or criticize employers.
“I think there is a political risk in getting involved,” he said. “It is not common for a president to get involved. I expect Mr Biden to keep a hands-off approach while generally meaning that he supports workers.