Reality Check


It can be easy for labor activists to get caught up in hype or wishful thinking. But University of Oregon labor studies professor Gordon Lafer, co-director of the Labor Education and Research Center (LERC), can be relied on to tell it straight. Was there something different about the strike upsurge of 2023? We asked. Here’s what he had to say:

“People are quick to make big declarations based on small evidence. The union busting industry is always trying to scare employers to say, oh, the labor movement’s coming for you. And like, on the left, there’s a lot of people who are just like dying to declare the great glorious people’s revolution. So I don’t want to overstate it. But long term, for 40 or 50 years, it’s gotten harder to make a secure decent middle class living for anybody. And short term, I think a lot more people are a lot more angry, post COVID, especially the people who couldn’t just work from home. 

Some of what we’re seeing in nurses is people who were at risk during COVID because they were dealing with the public. Or teachers dealing with all the fallout of the kids showing up with so much more stress. And hospital workers being physically at risk and dealing with patient stress and increased levels of violence. And then of course the labor market has been relatively tight, which means people have less fear of being unable to find another job if worst comes to worst. 

I think when there are more strikes, it makes people less afraid of a strike; it’s less freakish. Lots and lots of people feel like any kind of union activism and especially striking is like being “bad” and disappointing their their managers. Sometimes you’d have somebody at home  saying, “don’t be a troublemaker, don’t stick your neck out. We need health insurance.” I think as there are more strikes around the country, it starts to become more like an acceptable thing that people may need to do to secure a living. Right now the homecare nurses are on strike at PeaceHealth. And their strike is basically that they want to get paid the same as the regular nurses in the hospital. And, you know, it’s just a simple demand, and I don’t know if that’s something that five years ago or 10 years ago they would have struck for, but they didn’t. 

If you ask the average person, a lot of people know that there were strikes, and that they were pretty successful. Most people don’t know any of the details. But the auto workers strike got a lot of press. The Hollywood strike got a lot of press. The near-strike of UPS got a lot of press.

People see other people going on strike and the strike does not end in a story like the air traffic controllers under Reagan. We’re not seeing stories where someone went on strike, and then 5,000 people lost their jobs and their lives were ruined. There have been times when there were stories like that. Now there’s not.”  


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