The recent wave of militant labor action has been over workers demanding better pay and working conditions—not opposing Covid vaccine requirements.
This month, the United States has seen a noticeable uptick in the number of strikes by fed-up workers at companies like Kellogg’s and John Deere—a phenomenon many are calling “Striketober.” As a result, the U.S. labor movement is getting an unusual amount of attention.
But because of the corporate media’s often spotty or ideologically slanted coverage of workers’ struggles, combined with the fact that only a small minority of Americans have any personal experience with unions, there appears to be some confusion among the general public over what Striketober is really about.
A troubling number of Americans seem to have the false impression that tens of thousands of underpaid and overworked employees are going on strike in order to resist Covid-19 vaccine mandates—when they are actually walking off the job to win decent raises, equitable pay structures and relief from mandatory overtime.
Some of this confusion was on display last week as HuffPost labor reporter Dave Jamieson appeared on C-SPAN to discuss the current wave of strikes. When host John McArdle opened the phone lines for viewers to call up, the vaccine-specific questions started to roll in.
“I wanted to know how much the vaccine mandates are playing in these strikes? What is the role of the vaccine mandate?” asked the first caller, a woman from South Carolina.
About fifteen minutes later, another caller from Kentucky asked, “Do you think this vaccine is causing most of the strikes?”
In response, Jamieson patiently explained that, “the vaccine is essentially a non-issue in these strikes we are seeing.”
“As someone who’s been following these strikes closely, I was a little surprised by the assumption that vaccines might be at the center of this,” Jamieson told In These Times. “But I probably shouldn’t have been. There’s been outsized media coverage of workers defying vaccine requirements, even though they seem to be quite a small share of the workforce.”
Indeed, since this summer there have been numerous news reports about unions “opposing” vaccine mandates, and many similar stories about individual workers who would rather get fired than be vaccinated. But in reality, employers across the country are reporting that 90 to 100 percent of their workforces are complying with vaccine mandates.
And then there’s media coverage that collapses the distinction between workers walking off the job to demand better working conditions and resistance to vaccine mandates, such as this CNN story titled, “Here comes the anti-vaccine requirement solidarity movement,” which spends dozens of paragraphs recounting opposition to mandates before stating that the recent strikes have actually not been over such objections. At the end of September, Fox News published a story falsely claiming that healthcare workers at Valley Health in Winchester, Va., went on strike over their employer’s vaccine mandate, when in fact only a small number of workers protested the requirement, rather than taking part in an official or large-scale walk out.
Much of the media hype about supposed union opposition to the mandates stems from general misunderstandings about the nature of collective bargaining. Unions that have asserted their right to bargain with employers over the implementation of vaccine mandates have inaccurately been accused of opposing the mandates altogether.
Reacting to news that public sector unions in Portland, Oregon were demanding to negotiate implementation of the vaccine mandate, journalist James Surowiecki tweeted: “Organized labor has been on the wrong side of the vaccine issue almost across the board.”
“Maybe some unions have been captured by the cranks in their ranks,” Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell opined in response to unions wanting to negotiate vaccine mandates. “If ‘Big Labor’ obstructs this effort, it will fail not only its own members, but also the many admirers and political allies it worked so hard to win over,” she warned.
But as the Economic Policy Institute’s Dave Kamper explained, “Demanding to negotiate the impact of something isn’t the same as refusing to do it, or even being opposed to it.”
Unions seeking to bargain over vaccine mandates want to determine specific policies like whether workers can use paid sick time to get vaccinated, what they will be expected to show as proof of vaccination and whether those working remotely will also need to be vaccinated.
“Even when an employer offers something unmistakably good to employees…unions still can, will, and SHOULD demand to negotiate it, get it down in writing, formally agree to it,” Kamper wrote. “At its very heart, collective bargaining isn’t about money. It’s about power. It’s about WHO DECIDES. The principle of collective bargaining is the boss is not and should not be the unilateral decision maker. That’s what a demand to negotiate means.”
Indeed, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) and Tyson Foods recently hammered out an agreement on implementation of the mandate, and now report that 96 percent of the company’s workers have been vaccinated, exemplifying that negotiating over vaccine mandates does not mean opposition to them.
“Working together, the UFCW and Tyson set a new standard with this vaccine mandate and have proved what’s possible when we listen to workers and negotiate the implementation of vaccination mandates fairly and responsibly,” said UFCW International President Marc Perrone.
Meanwhile, it is true that some unions have been extremely vocal and adamant in their total opposition to vaccine mandates—but these are almost entirely right-wing police unions like Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7, which are already pariahs to many in the labor movement. Importantly, while these police unions may be holding protests and making noise, they are not on strike and are therefore completely unconnected to the current wave of work stoppages.
“I think people are conflating the labor strife they see with these highly politicized mandates,” Jamieson said. “Unfortunately, that can overshadow the important labor story that’s unfolding: workers finding their leverage and demanding a better deal.”
This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 28, 2021. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Jeff Schuhrke has been a Working In These Times contributor since 2013. He has a Ph.D. in History from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a Master’s in Labor Studies from UMass Amherst. Follow him on Twitter: @JeffSchuhrke