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Workers became more willing to go on strike during the pandemic, citing burnout, being underpaid

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 10/23/2021 Katie Johnston
Nurses on strike at St. Vincent Hospital. © Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff Nurses on strike at St. Vincent Hospital.

When the pandemic shut down movie and TV production across the country last year, thousands of crew members accustomed to spending long days on set suddenly had more time for themselves and their families. But when filming resumed, studios went into overdrive to keep up with demand and pushed workers to the brink. So the workers pushed back — and then voted to strike.

A walkoff was narrowly averted last weekend when the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees tentatively agreed to an offer that kept 60,000 people on the job. But the mind-set of the workforce has been indelibly shifted by the pandemic, which put workers’ long-simmering discontent into stark relief, said Chris O’Donnell, business manager for the union’s 1,100 members in New England.

“It’s not uncommon for people to work 12-, 14-hour days, five, six days a week,” he said, “and I think people realized that they wanted a better work-life balance.”

A year and a half into the pandemic, workers are burnt out and fed up, and, emboldened by the labor shortage, many of them, particularly those in unions, are increasingly willing to take a stand. Strikes surged nationally in October, with at least 40 actions ongoing (including 26 that have started so far this month) and 187 since the start of the year, according to Cornell University’s new Labor Action Tracker.

Ten-thousand workers are on strike at John Deere, which is experiencing its first major walkout in three decades. More than 2,000 Catholic Health workers in Buffalo walked off the job, as did 1,400 workers at Kellogg cereal plants.

In Massachusetts, 700 nurses at Saint Vincent Hospital in Worcester have been on strike since March. Stagehands at the North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly shut down opening night, joined by orchestra and cast members who refused to cross the picket line. And the union representing 4,500 Harvard University graduate students is set to walk if an agreement isn’t reached by the end of the month. Hotel employees at several properties in Boston are set to confront their managers about bringing back room service and other offerings to get more people back to work, part of a wave of hotel actions taking place in 29 cities next week.

The show will go on at North Shore Music Theatre after stagehands win concessions and end strike

Many of those confronting their employers have been on the front lines during the COVID crisis, working in potentially dangerous situations and dealing with stringent safety protocols. At first, those deemed “essential” were hailed as heroes, but the praise was fleeting and temporary raises have long since expired. Employees who see their companies reaping profits as the economy bounces back — Deere & Co.’s earnings rose 84 percent in the first three quarters of the year compared to that period in 2019 — are also demanding a bigger piece of the pie.

For others, the pandemic has been a wake-up call to pursue their dreams, or at least a better job, and some people who’ve been happy working from home — or don’t want to get vaccinated — are resisting calls to go back to the office. In August, there were 10.4 million job openings, following a record high in July, and 4.3 million employees quit their jobs, setting a record pace.

The difficulty employers are having finding workers, combined with the “intensification” of work and a growing dissatisfaction with low-wage, dead-end jobs, is giving employees more leverage, labor activists and scholars say.

“A lot of these workers have been on the front lines of a global pandemic for a year and a half now, and there’s a source of power in them ... working through such difficult conditions,” said Johnnie Kallas, a former labor organizer and PhD student at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations who helped create the Labor Action Tracker. “You’re seeing some of that frustration being expressed right now.”

There have already been 14 work stoppages involving at least 1,000 workers each this year, Kallas said. This figure has already surpassed the number of major strikes in many recent years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which only tracks those with over 1,000 workers. There were 27 in 2019, the highest number in nearly two decades.

But the labor actions taking place now are being watched carefully as worker discontent grows, and public support rises. According to a new Gallup poll, 68 percent of Americans approve of unions, the highest rating since 1965.

The union campaign by Amazon warehouse workers in Alabama, which was defeated in April, was the subject of nationwide interest, though the results are being challenged, and workers at four Amazon facilities on Staten Island, undeterred, are seeking a federal election to form a union.

Other nontraditional workplaces are organizing as well. Workers at HelloFresh, the meal-kit company, are voting to unionize around the country. “The fact that for once we’re not totally disposable, they need us — it was the perfect time,” a Starbucks shift supervisor in Buffalo told The New York Times about her store’s union drive.

Amazon defeated the biggest union push in the company’s history, raising questions for labor advocates nationally

Some workers are so fed up with being overworked and understaffed that they’re banding together to resign. “We all quit,” read the sign outside a Burger King in Lincoln, Neb., in July. “Sorry for the inconvenience.”

“We have worked 7 days a week for the past month and barely any time off,” read a note on the door at a restaurant in Macon, Ga., that was shuttered by a mass resignation in September.

Nurses at Saint Vincent’s Hospital have been on the picket line for nearly eight months — the longest nursing strike in state history — in large part due to a staffing crisis that was exacerbated by the pandemic, said Marlena Pellegrino, a registered nurse who has worked at the hospital for her entire 35-year career. During the pandemic, it was “all boots on the ground” for nurses, she said. But rather than shifting those in units closed due to the pandemic to assist with COVID patients, as other hospitals did, she said, administrators pressured nurses to go on furlough. Those remaining were forced to do more with less, Pellegrino said, and the hospital is taking advantage of that.

“They saw a way to save money,” she said. “All the stuff that we did in order to save our patients during the pandemic was then turned around and used against us.”

A Saint Vincent spokesman noted that the furloughs were voluntary and the nurse-patient ratio was only slightly elevated during the first wave of the pandemic.

At Harvard University, when the pandemic shuttered the lab that PhD student Zoe Feder was working in, she suddenly found herself with more time to get involved in the graduate students’ union. After learning more about student workers’ low wages and lack of protections, and buoyed by a desire to help make the biomedical research community more equitable, she started organizing — and eventually voted to authorize a strike.

Before, she said, “I just didn’t have the bandwidth to really pay attention, and then the pandemic kind of put a pause on everything. ... The pandemic kind of catalyzed people to reorient their priorities.”

The stage hands at North Shore Music Theatre weren’t unionized before the pandemic, but after several staffers and family members got severely ill with COVID in March 2020, and three died, the workers reached out to IATSE Local 11, said president Christopher Welling. The union told them they were being underpaid, prompting a one-day walkoff earlier this month. The stagehands are now back at work, with a wage increase.

“COVID made them aware that life’s too short to be in a bad job or be in a job that doesn’t pay right,” Welling said. “Everybody woke up.”

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