After the United States went into lockdown in spring 2020, millions of people were designated ‘essential workers’—individuals who were expected to continue laboring at their jobs as meatpackers, teachers, janitors, delivery drivers, nurses, or grocery store clerks, at the potential cost of their lives. In response, thousands of wildcat strikes erupted to challenge dangerous working conditions and confront chronically low wages for these essential positions. This wave of wildcat strikes has continued and reached remarkable levels in the United States, as documented by Mike Elk from the labor news website Payday Report. Elk created a continuously updated COVID-19 Strike Wave Interactive Map, which had identified 1,100 wildcat strikes as of March 24, 2021, many of which the corporate media have chosen to ignore.
Traditionally, workers who strike belong to unions and only go on strike after discussing the possibility within their local (and sometimes national) unions and then taking a vote. Wildcat strikes are a different matter; they occur when workers without unions, or without explicit approval by the unions that do represent them, collectively stop working. Most wildcat strikes last for only a few days, though they often result in employers making some concessions to workers’ demands.
Throughout our unprecedented national health crisis, employers have relentlessly pushed to cut workplace costs. Many unauthorized work stoppages throughout the nation have been over appalling actions by employers who put workers at risk; some of the many outrageous actions by employers that essential workers were expected to simply accept included skimping on protective gear that could prevent workers from contracting the coronavirus, and attempting to cut workers’ ability to receive healthcare. In one instance, as Mike Elk of Payday Report detailed in a July 23, 2020 article, seven hundred healthcare workers in Santa Rosa, California went on strike because their hospital lacked sufficient personal protective equipment to keep employees safe, and management warned employees that their insurance fees would be doubled if they wanted continued coverage for their families. Another example that Elk covered in the same article took place in St. Joseph, Missouri, where 120 sheet metal workers went on strike due to management’s repeated attempts to cut their healthcare benefits during the pandemic. As Michael Sainato from the Guardian reported, the Trump administration failed to issue federal mandates that employers take specific steps to keep workers safe from COVID-19, allowing employers to implement the government’s health and safety guidance as they pleased.
In some cases, workers have engaged in wildcat work stoppages to advance long-standing demands for higher wages, leveraging their increased bargaining power during the pandemic to wrest pay concessions from employers. In May 2020, workers at fifty McDonald’s, Burger King, Starbucks, and other fast food restaurants and coffee shops throughout the state of Florida staged a day-long strike for higher pay and better protective equipment. Similarly, in April 2021, employees at Peet’s Coffee & Tea locations in the Chicago area staged a coordinated work stoppage together with the Fight for $15 campaign to demand workplace protections and quarantine pay.
Another important and underreported force driving the massive wave of wildcat strikes this past year has been Black and Brown workers using digital technologies to organize collective actions as a way to press some of the demands for racial justice raised by Black Lives Matter and George Floyd protestors. As Mike Elk explained in a July 8, 2020 article for Payday Report, in June 2020 “the U.S. saw more than 600 strikes or work stoppages by workers in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. . . . Payday [Report] estimates that the strike and work stoppages total [that the Strike Wave Interactive Map has identified] is likely a severe underestimation as many non-union Black and Brown workers are now calling out en masse to attend Black Lives Matter protests without it ever being reported in the press or on social media.” Elk observed that many Black and Brown workers believe white labor leaders fail to understand organizing strategies that are nontraditional, such as using social media platforms to create a viral movement: “Scores of Black and Brown workers say that this failure is yet another indicator of how the overwhelming[ly] white leadership of organized labor struggles to understand the organizing of Black and Brown workers.”
Corporate media have largely avoided reporting on the burgeoning wildcat protests in the United States. While local and regional newspapers and broadcast news outlets have reported on particular local actions, corporate news coverage has failed to report the strike wave as a wave, at no time connecting the dots of all the individual, seemingly isolated work stoppages and walkouts to create a picture of the overarching trend. Thus, the one-day strikes by fast food and coffee shop workers discussed above were covered only by national restaurant trade publications and local news outlets. No national corporate newspapers or broadcast news operations bothered to report on these unprecedented coordinated actions.
It is telling that the most in-depth discussion of the COVID-19 strike wave in the nation’s newspaper of record, the New York Times, was not a news report at all but an opinion piece, published March 30, 2020, by Steven Greenhouse, arguing that businesses’ refusal to provide workers with gloves, masks, and other protections against the virus had “set off a burst of walkouts, sickouts and wildcat strikes.” A few other New York Times articles made fleeting references to wildcat strikes, including one that briefly noted several impromptu strikes at Amazon warehouses. Outlets such as USA Today, the Washington Post, and Fox News have yet to run a single story on the wildcat strikes sweeping the nation. Overall, the establishment media’s scattered, scant coverage has rendered invisible the remarkable work of the working-class Black and Brown activists who are largely responsible for this wave of protests.
The sole exception to the corporate media’s blackout on the year-long strike wave occurred during a brief period in August 2020 when Vox, the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and CNN all suddenly decided to cover wildcat strikes, but only of one particular kind—specifically, those involving highly-paid athletes on pro basketball and baseball teams. The players walked out against the terms of their contracts to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake by Wisconsin police, and the corporate media coverage of US strikes swiftly ended once the players returned later that same week.
“COVID-19 Strike Wave Interactive Map,” Payday Report, March 2020, updated continuously.
Michael Sainato, “Strikes Erupt as US Essential Workers Demand Protection Amid Pandemic,” The Guardian, May 19, 2020.
Mike Elk, “700 CA. Hospital Workers Strike—UNC May Strike Over Reopening—Sheet Metal Strike in Missouri,” Payday Report, July 23, 2020.
Mike Elk, “How Black & Brown Workers are Redefining Strikes in the Digital COVID Age,” Payday Report, July 8, 2020.
Student Researcher: Cem Ismail Addemir (North Central College)
Faculty Evaluator: Steve Macek (North Central College)
Illustration by Anson Stevens-Bollen.