Organized labor is asserting itself after two or three decades of quiet.
Those years have not been good for the old industries that once dominated the national economy. Steel mills and coal mines shut down. Japanese auto manufacturers built factories in the United States and kept the United Auto Workers out. As traditional industries shrank, government employees became the primary target of organizers.
Things changed in 2021, highlighted by the 11-week strike by 1,400 workers at four Kellogg Co. cereal plants. Locally, workers at Cabell Huntington Hospital and Special Metals went on strike when their contracts expired. The hospital workers settled on a new contract. The United Steelworkers at Special Metals are into the fourth month of their strike.
The Special Metals strike gained national attention last week when U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, sent a letter to Warren Buffett, the CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, the company that owns Special Metals. Sanders urged Buffett to intervene in the strike and ensure workers get a fair contract.
“At a time when this company and Berkshire Hathaway are both doing very well, there is no reason why workers employed by you should be worrying about whether they will be able to feed their children or have health care,” Sanders wrote. “There is no reason why the standard of living of these hard working Americans should decline. I know that you and Berkshire Hathaway can do better than that.”
In an interview with the Associated Press, Sanders said, “When you have an extremely profitable, well-financed corporation owned by one of the wealthiest guys in the world, you know what, you should not be demanding wage cuts from your workers and cuts in their health care benefits. That’s just wrong.”
Buffett responded to Sanders’ letter by saying it’s not his policy to become involved in the daily workings of companies he owns. He appoints their CEOs and lets them handle those matters, he wrote.
Berkshire Hathaway owns Special Metals through its subsidiary Precision Castparts. Company spokesman David Dugan said the company is committed to reaching a fair agreement through negotiations. Those talks are scheduled to resume this week.
That these strikes of local and national interest are occurring shows that change has come to the workplace. As things tend to do, the pendulum has reached the top of its arc and has begun to swing the other way. Workers are frustrated. They can see management thriving while they are asked to live with minimal raises in an inflationary economy. They are asked to pay a greater share of the cost of their benefits as their wages stagnate.
Thus the labor movement has gained new momentum. Workers have taken the initiative, and now national politicians such as Sanders have joined in.
It’s too early to tell if Sanders’ letter is a gamechanger in the Special Metals strike or if it’s a one news cycle wonder. Either way, it’s a sign America’s working class has decided it’s mad as you know what and it’s not going to take this any more.