‘Suicide Shifts,’ 7-Day Weeks Fuel Rare Flare-Up in U.S. Strikes
(Bloomberg) -- The headline-grabbing labor strife of 2021 is being fought along traditional fronts like pay and benefits. But increasingly, restive workers weary from the Covid-19 pandemic are turning to companies with a newly urgent demand: Give back my free time.
From Hollywood sets to snack factories, and heavy-equipment makers to hospitals, employees are fighting back against what they see as a pernicious encroachment on their personal life -- with work restricting their ability to relax, or just to get a good night’s sleep.
Deere & Co. employees, who launched a 10,000-person strike Oct. 14, cited the mandatory overtime that can stretch their shifts to 12 hours. At Kellogg Co., the union went on strike this month after decrying the toll of seven-day workweeks that had kept cereal flowing to stuck-at-home customers during the pandemic. And at Frito-Lay Inc., workers have this year challenged what they called “suicide shifts”: being made to leave late and return early, with only eight hours of turnaround time in between.
Workers are reacting to the instability in their schedules as well as their paychecks, said professor Joan Williams, who directs the Center for WorkLife Law at University of California’s Hastings law school. “The issue of time as a workers’ rights issue has really come of age,” Williams said. “Workers being sped up, deprived of weekends, deprived of sufficient rest time, with extremely unstable schedules and long and erratic work hours -- they’ve had enough.”
It’s too early to tell if the spate of labor actions -- with more than 100,000 workers recently green-lighting work stoppages around the country -- will fundamentally change the balance of power between labor and employers, but workers have a rare wind at their backs.
Part of it has been dubbed the Great Resignation -- with a record 4.3 million people quitting their jobs just in the month of August, at least temporarily making a tight labor market even tighter. Fewer available workers means the threat of permanently replacing striking workers, as U.S. law usually lets companies do, doesn’t carry as much punch.
There’s also the pandemic effect. Essential workers were bestowed hero status and saddled with new risks, but without the pay or protections many felt they deserved. The lockdowns gave other workers their first sustained family time in awhile, forcing them to reassess what they’d been sacrificing. That’s inspired some to resist long hours and undesirable working conditions, in ways they’ve never done before.
“You’re only existing to do that job,” said Hassan Abdul-Wahid, a 49-year-old cameraman who’s worked on shows like NBC’s “Superstore.”
Several years ago, Abdul-Wahid arrived on a set and learned some horrifying news. A co-worker, driving home after an exhausting super-sized shift, dozed off, flipped her car and killed a friend. There wasn’t much time to reflect, Abdul-Wahid said. “We took a two-minute moment of silence and went back to work on some stupid music video.”
The Los Angeles Times and Wall Street Journal both reported on Friday, citing people familiar, that the movie set on which Alec Baldwin discharged a prop firearm that killed a person was plagued by complaints over pay and conditions, leading some workers to walk off. The movie’s production company, Rust Movie Productions LLC, called safety its top priority.
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The battle for time is a central feature of the labor action in Hollywood, where unionized film and TV workers voted to authorize a 60,000-person strike, which would have been the first in the century-long history of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.
Union leaders have a tentative deal to avert the strike, but some members say it doesn’t go far enough to protect them. Workers say it’s an industry where 16 hours days are common, meal and bathroom breaks are often skipped, even when legally required, and the time between shifts is often too short to fit in a commute and more than a few hours of sleep.
A spokesperson for the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the trade association that represents producers in talks with the union, said only that it was “pleased to have reached a tentative agreement with the IATSE for a new three-year contract that will keep the industry working.”
During the pandemic, Amazon.com Inc.’s tracking and punishment of employees’ Time of Task metric was targeted by the first-of-its kind legislation in California. The bill, signed into law in September, requires disclosure of warehouse productivity quotas and prohibits enforcing quotas that prevent workers from using the bathroom. Amazon announced in June that it was adjusting its policy and would be “focusing Time off Task conversations on how we can help.”
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Erratic scheduling in industries like fast food and retail inspired a series of new laws in cities such as New York and Chicago and statewide in Oregon, requiring that workers get advance notice of schedules and restricting so-called “clopening” -- where the same employees who close their store for the night also then reopen the locations hours later in the morning.
In recent statements, Deere said it’s committed to work with the union to address employees’ concerns; Kellogg said most overtime is voluntary; and Frito-Lay said it subsequently reached a contract deal that gives the union more input on overtime.
The current wave of threatened and already-underway strikes stands out because U.S. walkouts have become so rare, plummeting from nearly 3 million Americans participating in major work stoppages in 1952 to just 27,000 last year. Only 10.8% of the U.S. workforce belonged to unions last year -- which is down from a peak of 34.8% in 1954, according to Pew Research Center.
The employee backlash has historical parallels, dating back to World War II: More than a tenth of the U.S. workforce took part in a wave of strikes after the war, as employees who had hustled to advance wartime production and acceded to a government-brokered labor-management wartime truce finally let loose their frustrations.
The now-receding pandemic has been in some ways a similar “national mobilization,” said University of Chicago historian Gabriel Winant. “The sacrifice that’s entailed in national mobilization incurs a debt,” Winant said. “They expect to be repaid.”
But there are important differences too, starting with the diminished number of Americans now in labor unions, a major reason why this time so many are choosing to quit their jobs rather than attempting to band together to change them.
Even with a union, many film and TV workers say the industry’s time abuses long struck them as simply baked into the job, until time home with families shifted their perspective, social media discussions heightened their agitation, and then the overwhelming strike authorization vote gave them a new sense of strength. Some members of IATSE voiced disappointment about the tentative-contract deal struck on Oct. 16, while others expressed appreciation “for how broad and significant” it is, according to Rebecca Rhine, executive director of IATSE’s largest Hollywood local.
“The pandemic has changed people, and it’s changed unions,” Rhine said. “People want more control over their lives.”
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