After the United States went into lockdown, millions were deemed ‘essential workers’—individuals who needed to continue grinding the gears of capitalism at the potential cost of their lives. In response, thousands of wildcat strikes have erupted to challenge dangerous working conditions and confront the lack of compensation for their labor. These bursts of wildcat strikes have reached remarkable levels in the United States, as indicated by Mike Elk from Payday Report, who has created a Covid-19 Strike Wave Interactive Map, identifying 1,100 such strikes as of March 24, 2021, many of which the corporate media have chosen to ignore.
Traditionally, workers go on strike after receiving consent from their union representatives. However, wildcat strikes occur when workers without unions, or without approval by the unions they do have, collectively stop working and go on strike. Over the past year, there have been hundreds of reported work stoppages across various essential industries including food service, meat processing, retail, manufacturing, education, transportation, and healthcare. Most wildcat strikes last for a few days, often resulting in employers making some concessions to worker’s demands.
All through an unprecedented national health crisis, employers have consistently pushed to cut workplace costs. Many strikes across the nation have been over appalling actions by employers, such as attempting to cut workers ability to receive healthcare. For example, as Mike Elk of Payday Report detailed, 800 healthcare workers in Santa Rosa, California went on strike due to their hospital lacking PPE to keep employees safe, and management warned employees that their insurance fees would be doubled if they wanted to continue covering their families. Another example can be seen in 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 requiring social distancing in the workplace, allowing employers to implement requirements as they please.
Another important and underreported reason for the massive wave of wildcat strikes over this past year is due to the power of Black and Brown workers using digital space to organize strikes. Mike Elk explained, in the month of June, “the U.S. saw more than 600 strikes or work stoppages by workers in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement… Payday estimates that the strike and work stoppages total 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 stated that many Black and Brown workers see white labor leaders’ failure to understand organizing strategies that are non-traditional 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 white leadership of organized labor struggles to understand the organizing of Black and Brown workers.”
The overwhelming majority of corporate media outlets have avoided reporting on the burgeoning wildcat protests in the United States. Due to this lack of coverage, most establishment outlets have missed the remarkable work of Black and Brown organizers who largely contributed to this wave of protests for equality and worker rights during the pandemic. Outlets such as USA Today, The Economist, the Washington Post, and Fox News have yet to run a single story on the wave of wildcat strikes. However, during a brief period in August, outlets such as Vox, The New Yorker, the New York Times, Washington Post, and CNN covered “wildcat strikes”—but only when pro sports teams associated with the NBA, WNBA, MLB, and MLS walked out against their no-strike contract to protest the Wisconsin police shooting of Jacob Blake. Otherwise, there are but a few mentions and no sustained corporate media discussion of the historic number of wildcat strikes during 2020. A couple of New York Times articles made fleeting references to wildcat strikes, including an article that briefly noted several Amazon warehouse wildcat strikes, and an opinion piece on poor working conditions that momentarily referenced wildcat strikes. A meaningful contribution was made by Vice when they covered wildcat strikes citing Payday Reports interactive wildcat strike map.
“COVID-19 Strike Wave Interactive Map,” Payday Report, Accessed March 24, 2021, https://paydayreport.com/covid-19-strike-wave-interactive-map/.
Michael Sainato, “Strikes Erupt As US Essential Workers Demand Protection Amid Pandemic,” The Guardian, May 19, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/19/strikes-erupt-us-essential-workers-demand-better-protection-amid-pandemic.
Mike Elk, “700 CA. Hospital Workers Strike – UNC May Strike Over Reopening – Sheet Metal Strike in Missouri,” Payday Report, July 23, 2020, https://paydayreport.com/700-ca-hospital-workers-strike-unc-may-strike-over-reopening-sheet-metal-strike-in-missouri/.
Mike Elk, “How Black & Brown Workers Are Redefining Strikes in the Digital COVID Age,” Payday Report, July 8, 2020, https://paydayreport.com/how-black-brown-workers-are-redefining-strikes-in-a-digital-covid-age/.
Student Researcher: Cem Ismail Addemir (North Central College)
Faculty Evaluator: Steve Macek (North Central College)