Strikes, Protests, and Today’s Workforce
by KeShonna Jackson ’24, Cornell University
In December 2021, workers at a Starbucks location in Buffalo, New York, voted to unionize, a first for a corporate Starbucks location in the United States. Less than a month later, some workers at the store walked off the job, fed up with what they described as inadequate safety precautions and a practice of understaffing at the store. The protest garnered national media attention. As of October 2022, more than 230 stores in the Starbucks company are fully unionized, with many more organizing, says Johnnie Kallas, a Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR) doctoral student.
Intrigued by how one store’s decision to unionize spurred an entire movement, Kallas went to Buffalo to talk to Starbucks workers.
Kallas wants to understand what makes a strike successful and how newer forms of labor activism have transformed the labor movement. He has organized workers himself, and he can relate to these struggles. After completing his undergraduate degree, he worked on the Fight for $15 campaign in Cleveland and Memphis and was an organizer for the California Nurses Association.
Kallas now leads an ILR project called the Labor Action Tracker, an online database that tracks strike and labor protest activity in the United States. After eight months in planning and development, the Tracker launched on May 1, 2021, also known as May Day or International Workers’ Day — in time to capture data on the walkout in Buffalo six months later.
Kallas and his team created the Labor Action Tracker to provide accurate and comprehensive data about strikes and labor protests in the United States. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), a primary source of strike data, records major work stoppages involving 1,000 or more workers. But many labor actions, like the walkout in Buffalo, are much smaller than that. The Labor Action Tracker fills in the gaps.
Since its launch, the Labor Action Tracker has built a reputation as a reliable source of strike information, having been cited by news sources such as the New York Times and Time Magazine.
Creating a record of labor actions that rivals the BLS isn’t easy. Kallas and his team have to learn about small, informal actions that may involve less than a dozen workers.
“We primarily gather our data through a series of Google news and social media searches,” Kallas says. “The research team and myself search for labor actions on a weekly, sometimes a daily basis. We have these keyword searches to find strikes and labor protests, and we have several verification protocols to make sure that we’re accurately keeping track of strikes, such as finding a second news source that supports our original information.”
To create a comprehensive record of labor movement activity in the United States, the team manually records data, differentiating between strikes and labor protests. A strike, by the team’s definition, is a temporary work stoppage to express a grievance or to enforce a demand. A labor protest also expresses a grievance or enforces a demand but doesn’t entail workers withdrawing their labor.
“We’re not just interested in whether the strike or protest occurred,” Kallas says. “We’re also interested in other variables, such as the number of workers on strike, the labor organization and employer involved, the duration, and the demands. We want to give as much information as we can. With a reliable database of strike and protest activity, we can make sure that policymakers, researchers, and activists are informed about the true level of workplace unrest in the country.”
“We can make sure that policymakers, researchers, and activists are informed about the true level of workplace unrest in the country.”
What Makes a Successful Strike?
The Labor Action Tracker gives a brief but thorough overview of every action it lists. The team also produces an online annual report with a breakdown of factors such as worker demands, industries, and regions of labor actions. Using this information, researchers and policymakers can find out the root of a labor problem and work to address it.
In addition to his work on the Labor Action Tracker, Kallas is pursuing his own research looking into specific strikes that are making progress. He has interviewed Starbucks workers in Buffalo and health care workers who are involved in strikes in western New York and Worcester, Massachusetts. His goal is to capture emerging trends in recent strike activity across the United States.
Kallas wants to understand why workers are going on strike in the first place. In 2021, insufficient pay, health care, and workplace safety were the most prevalent factors to influence workers’ decision to strike, especially in the wave of COVID-19 concerns, Kallas says. But recently, broader social movements have expanded the scope of labor activism.
“Back in the summer of 2020, during the Black Lives Matter protests, a group of NBA [National Basketball Association] and WNBA [Women’s National Basketball Association] players walked out during playoffs in protest of the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. This wasn’t considered a sort of traditional labor strike, but it was by our definition. Workers stopped work to protest injustice,” he says.
Kallas is interested in how workers, especially younger workers, make sure their voices are heard. According to Kallas, the new labor movement is an expansion of the previous one, with more reasons that workers strike, more types of workers, more companies being tackled, and more platforms to advocate on. Kallas is also interested in the conditions under which strikes are most effective for workers and their organizations. He wants his research to inform activists and workers on the most successful strategies for creating change.
“But the question left is, how do we develop sustainable worker power in the face of antagonistic employers? After the strike is over, how can workers get to a place where they continue to have a meaningful voice and power in their workplace? Lasting change in the workplace requires organizing at the grassroots level. It requires continuous activism at work to bring about supportive institutions. For change at the top to occur, you need to have a lot of activism and disruption,” Kallas says.
Labor rights have been strongly debated since the Industrial Revolution. According to Kallas, workers have always had to fight for change, and progress is often slow and difficult. The Fight for $15 campaign began in 2012. As of October 2022, only California has implemented a $15 minimum wage, although several more states have scheduled increases that will bring their minimum wage to $15 by the end of 2025. The federal minimum is less than half of that. Even the highly publicized union efforts at Starbucks have accomplished little in terms of pushing the company to meet unionized employees’ demands. Kallas emphasizes that workers must build organization and solidarity for a long fight.
“You need to have a high level of engagement by both active workers in the union and union leaders. You need to have commitment, attendance, and majority support in the workplace. Ultimately, at the end of the day it’s really about the solidarity that workers have with one another,” Kallas says.
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