'Striketober' Comes Out Swinging

Nov. 4, 2021
A perfect storm of factors is driving the labor action at Kellogg, John Deere and Nabisco, and it looks like more strikes are on the horizon.

“Striketober” is not a nickname to be taken lightly: In the U.S., the number of ongoing strikes in October 2021 alone nearly equals the total strikes nationwide for all of 2020.

The strikes have occurred in several industries (and even in Hollywood), but the real groundswell is happening in the traditional union concentration area: manufacturing. Nabisco, Kellogg and John Deere are all experiencing ongoing and acrimonious strikes. And it looks like more strikes are on the horizon. The AFL-CIO has indicated the strike wave would continue into 2022 through the mid-term elections.

Now is a good time to take a hard look at the combination of factors that have converged to produce the wave, and then reflect on what manufacturing leadership can be doing in this climate to avoid strikes at their facilities.

1. COVID-19

The pandemic produced a number of conditions that fanned strike flames. First, manufacturers were largely considered “essential businesses” for pandemic purposes and remained fully operational throughout.  As a result, manufacturing employees continued to report for work on the plant floor while much of the country hunkered down at home. This, of course, put manufacturing workers at greater risk of exposure to COVID.

The almost immediate response of organized labor was to position itself as the safety savior of all those who continued to come to work in their manufacturing jobs. “Lack of safety” around COVID protocols was a rallying cry for manufacturing employees.    

COVID also caused a number of other working conditions that resulted in worker discontent. Demand for many manufactured products rose sharply. COVID led to a surge in demand for Kellogg brands Corn Flakes, Froot Loops and Eggo waffles in North America. The need for increased production, combined with absences for COVID-related issues such as lack of childcare and COVID illness, resulted in increased overtime and a stretched-thin workforce. 

This has been compounded in recent months by global supply chain issues, which also have COVID as an ingredient. Component part shortages cause erratic schedules as employers rush to fill orders when supplies come in, only to be forced to shut down plants for days or weeks awaiting supplies stuck on ships waiting to be unloaded. Overtime complaints and lack of certainty in schedules are two areas where unions are often able to push their constituency into striking to curtail.

2. A Favorable Job Market and GoFundMe

One of the largest deterrents to strikes is the loss of income for strikers. The “strike funds” offered by unions are no more than a few hundred dollars a month. Enough for groceries and gas perhaps, but little more. It certainly is not enough to pay mortgages or car loans. However, the job market is so strong now that obtaining temporary employment while on strike is extremely easy.  As a result, workers are not faced with the usual loss of income that strikes cause.  Another relatively new opportunity also exists.  Unions can now utilize the internet to raise money for striking workers through GoFundMe  and other social-medial based campaigns. As of October 31, the local Kellogg union in Memphis, Tenn., had raised $86,516 to support the strikers. Well on the way to the stated goal of $125,000. 

3. Biden’s Campaign Promises and the Rapid Pendulum Swing

Organized labor was a key focus of President Joe Biden’s campaign. He has moved forward with many of his campaign promises. In fact, he took an initial step that no president had taken in the last 70 years to immediately force out two Trump-era National Labor Relations Board counsels, replacing them with two Democratic members, Gwynne Wilcox and David Prouty. He also immediately installed Democrat Lauren McFerrin as Chair of the NLRB. This shifted the board’s makeup to three Democrats and two Republicans, paving the way for changes in how organized labor is handled in the United States.

It is not unusual for administration changes to result in changes to the NLRB. With each change comes a pendulum swing in how the board operates, with Democrats traditionally siding with organized labor and Republicans being pro-business. However, what is unusual is the rapid pendulum swing in this case.  With President Bill Clinton we had eight years of a stable and moderate board that leaned toward organized labor but largely left board actions as they had been since the 1940s. With President George W. Bush, we again had a business-friendly but moderate board that did not overly disturb board precedent for the eight years he was in office.

President Barack Obama’s agenda was much more union-friendly. As a result, there was an erosion of board precedent, impacting such things as the language in employer handbooks around discipline, the use of company-owned email to solicit for unions, micro-units for organizing and terminating employees for using profane language against a manager and the definition of joint employer. The erosion was, however, slow and steady over an eight-year term. 

Then came the rapid changes. When President Donald Trump was elected, he immediately set in motion his agenda of completely overturning the Obama-era changes. Instead of the changes being spread across an eight-year term, many of the changes happened within the first 18 months of his presidency. That is whiplash-fast given most labor law precedent had been consistent since the enactment of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935. 

Then the reverse whiplash. President Trump was only in office for four years. As a result, the dust on his changes had only just settled when President Biden took over and pledged the biggest overhaul to labor law since the 1940s. This also includes a board makeup that will look at cases involving strikes with a favorable eye toward union interests. 

What It Means for Manufacturers

These factors have produced fertile ground for strikes and the leverage it gives to unions over companies. What this should drive home for manufacturers with unions is that this is not the time to procrastinate on labor relations and preparing for bargaining.

Company leaders should always be “walking the floor” to make sure they are in tune with their employees. Understand what they are concerned with and be proactive in addressing those concerns now, if possible. Read about and learn from what is going on with Nabisco, Kellogg and John Deere—what can you do ahead of time to address sticking points in those negotiations?

Finally, be very aware of optics. Are your senior leaders working from home while your bargaining unit employees are working at your plant (and risking exposure to COVID at a much higher rate?) Are your senior leaders receiving huge bonuses while you negotiated cost-of-living increases in your last Collective Bargaining Agreement for your hourly employees? Thoughtfulness and preparation now are your best bet for avoiding being part of the next Striketober. 

Mekesha Montgomery is an industry team leader based in Nashville, Tenn., at Frost Brown Todd Attorneys LLC. She represents management in the areas of union negotiations and arbitration and employment discrimination/wrongful discharge.

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