Beyond Twinkies: Why More Workers Are Striking
Senior Editor, CNBC
As snack eaters mourn the loss of their beloved Twinkies— Hostess Brands says a worker strike is shutting them down—more employees across the country seem to have an appetite for walking off the job.
Analysts say the reason may be that workers feel they've had enough when it comes to issues over pay, hours and benefits and that it's time to fight back.
""There's nothing to lose when you're up against the wall," said Emily Rosenberg, director of the labor education center at DePaul University.
"Workers feel that the courts are against them," she added. "The politicians are against them and the boss says there are 15 workers waiting to take your job at a lower rate of pay. There is no other answer than to organize."
"Many American workers are questioning the concept of upward mobility and whether they can move up financially," said Jim Matthews, a partner at Fox Rothschild and co-chair of the firm's Labor and Employment practice. "So, they're saying that 'if we are back in the working class then we are going to be a more active working class.' "
You'd have to look back some 40 years to see when American workers were really active.
During the 1970s, there was a yearly average of 289 major work stoppages involving 1,000 or more workers in the U.S. By the 1990s, that had dropped to some 35 each year. In 2009, there were only five.
But in 2010, there were 11 major work stoppages in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That climbed to 19 in 2011.
"I think there are several reasons for this recent activity but one key element is the National Labor Relations Board which has ruled in favor of workers' rights lately," said Dave Kurtz, a partner in the Edwards Wildman's Labor & Employment Group. "Workers are seeing that and it's embolden them."
The list of recent labor activity stretches back into the summer.
The Chicago teachers' strike which started in August, ended in September in what the teachers union called a victory. The summer recall attempt of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker failed, but a state court in September struck down many of the laws he backed to end public union collective bargaining.
Other job actions include strikes at Walmart which began in October, when, for the first time ever, retail workers for the walked off the job at 28 Walmarts around the country, over pay, working conditions—including having to work on Thanksgiving.
And an organization of Walmart workers is planning a series of strikes next week that they hope will paralyze the world's largest retailer on the biggest shopping day of the year—Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving.
Asked why he is on strike in Dallas, Texas, Walmart employee Colby Harris told CNBC Friday that corporate executives are not listening to their concerns.
"We've done everything within our power to sit down and talk with corporate executives of Walmart," said Harris. "We tried to talk to our managers and address these issues as far as treatment of associates who choose to speak out and they seem like they just don't want to listen to us and address these issues."
It was in September of this year that workers' union at Hostess Brands—now bankrupt and manage by a private equity firm, Ripplewood Holdings, and two hedge funds—rejected the company's' latest offer, which included cuts to wages and benefits. After a bankruptcy judge imposed the contract anyway, union members responded by walking out.
Striking Hostess workers admitted that the walkout could push the company into liquidation—and the loss of some 18,500 jobs. But an employee who walked out at a Hostess plant in Seattle, Washington told reporters last week that "we know we will probably lose our jobs, but if we accept these concessions, standards for bakers and other workers will keep going down. We are taking it on the chin for workers all over."
That kind of unity is creating a new wave of worker activity, said Jim Matthews.
"If workers feel they have the same contract as others in their industry, they may feel like there's less of a race to the bottom," said Matthews who said he usually deals on the management side of labor issues. "And workers are saying to companies, 'why do we have to take cuts when other parts of your business, like suppliers are not. Why is it on our backs?'"
What's also fueling a modern day worker effort are modern day tools, said Dave Kurtz.
"Employees are getting their message out through Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites in a way that's obviously different than in the past," Kurtz said. "They can immediately reach out to each other, organize and even solicit donations that way. It's a quick way to get the message not only locally but across the country."
Worker activism—large and small—continues.
Some 44 steelworkers in Niles, Ohio are still off the job after walking out from the Phillips Manufacturing Plant in September. Workers at the Detroit Waste Water Treatment Plant walked off the job on Sunday, Sept. 30, and remain on the picket line.
Bus drivers Beloit, Wis., say they are ready to strike unless First Student Inc., the private company with a contract with the Beloit School District, meets their demands for a wage increase.
But Kurtz and other analysts say this new found labor movement has to be careful about going too far—and doing more harm than good.
"Some companies need to make cuts to say alive. Firms don't always have a choice about how to run themselves and closings and concessions are part of business," said Kurtz. ""You can't just have a visceral reaction. Both sides need to be involved in a thoughtful process."