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From essential status to strikes, 2021 was the 'year of the worker'

As the pandemic wore on, the year was dominated by strikes, unionization efforts and worker mobilization.
Kellogg's Workers Rally
Demonstrators hold signs during a union workers strike against Kellogg's in Battle Creek, Michigan, on Dec. 17, 2021.Getty Images file

The monthslong Kellogg’s strike that ended last week capped a year of national unrest among workers in industries from entertainment to health care and manufacturing, as the country continues to grapple with the effects of the pandemic.

“There have been years where we thought we could see potential for ‘Year of the Worker’ but arguably it’s hard to see a year that’s been so full of worker activation,” said Ariel Avgar, a professor at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. “This year happened really quickly but it happened on the foundation of a slower shift. I think there are factors that are economic and attitudinal that have collided in a way that’s rare.”

Essential work

Many of the workers who mobilized for better working conditions this year were deemed essential by their employers, lawmakers and the media. However, after nearly two years of balancing their health and safety working on the front lines of the pandemic, some of these workers began to question that classification.

“There’s a huge gap between the claimed essentiality and the actual working conditions and lived realities of these workers,” Avgar said. 

Low-wage workers suffered disproportionately during the pandemic and began demanding improvements in the form of increased wages, meal and rest breaks, better benefits and shorter shifts. The pandemic served as a wake-up call of sorts for them by exacerbating existing issues and highlighting the fact that work could literally pose a threat to their lives. 

“The pandemic has shown that working conditions have clear implications for workers’ health and safety and that a lack of voice can affect workers’ health,” he said. “It gave it a much clearer sense of the stakes.”

Bad behavior

The pandemic has placed incredible strain on workers risking their lives to go to work. But for those in the service industry, it’s added an additional stressor as they’ve had to enforce mask mandates — in many cases, facing resistance from customers and forcing them to make hard choices that may compromise their safety

“My employees are so afraid to come to work,” said a restaurant owner in the Midwest, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution. “The people who come in don’t want to wear masks even though it’s mandated. They get violent. They spit on waiters. One person who got spit on quit and went to a bar where they don’t enforce the mandate, which is against the law, but they feel safer.”

The year has also seen extreme weather and natural disasters that have further endangered workers. In one extreme example, workers at a factory in Kentucky said they were threatened with termination if they left their shifts early even as a tornado approached their city. There has also been a recent increase in smash-and-grab robberies that has added to concerns about safety.

“Keeping my employees safe — that’s what’s keeping me on edge,” said Nicole Denny, owner of the J’Adore Boutique in Cary, North Carolina, which was hit by a smash-and-grab robbery in December. “My employees don’t want to work alone, so I don’t open if I don’t have two people to work. It’s not fair to them. We also don’t stay open past 5 p.m., because nobody wants to work once it’s dark.”

Push for unionization

The importance of having a voice led workers at numerous businesses, including Starbucks and Amazon, to push for union representation in their workplaces. While not all the efforts have been successful, the increasing mobilization is evidence of shifting attitudes, according to Avgar.

In Buffalo, New York, workers at three Starbucks locations pushed for the ability to join a union. One store won its unionization vote, making it the first company-owned location in the country to organize successfully. Starbucks workers at other locations, including Seattle, have also pushed for unionization votes. 

The U.S. has traditionally seen a decline in support for unions ... but the last two years and seeing the importance of workers has shifted broad public opinion on this.

Amazon warehouse workers have also pressed for unionization. After an initial push at an Alabama warehouse was unsuccessful, workers at that location will be allowed to redo the election. Amazon workers at a location in Staten Island have also started to organize.

“The U.S. has traditionally seen a decline in support for unions and labor movement, but I think the experience over the last two years and seeing the importance of workers has shifted broad public opinion on this,” Avgar said. “That external support provides legitimacy and support for these numerous examples of collective action that we’re seeing.”


In several instances, workers who'd had enough threatened or decided to go on strike when they couldn’t reach an agreement with their employers. Nearly 100,000 workers from health care to Hollywood challenged their working conditions, demanding higher wages and better benefits. The simultaneous worker activism, known as a “strike wave,” culminated in October and was dubbed “Striketober.”

Kellogg’s workers started their strike in October in order to prevent the adoption of a two-tier wage and benefit system, where new hires are paid less and receive fewer benefits than existing workers. The new agreement does not include a two-tier wage system but does include a moratorium on plant closures, an increase in pensions, and cost of living raises.

More than 10,000 John Deere workers went on strike for nearly five weeks over wage increases before approving a new agreement. Nabisco workers were also on strike for weeks in opposition to proposed changes in shift lengths and overtime rules. 

About 60,000 workers in Hollywood, members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, narrowly avoided a strike after voting on a new contract at the eleventh hour. Roughly 32,000 health care workers at Kaiser Permanente ratified a new contract just hours before a strike was set to take place.  

“There’s the labor shortage and the great resignation putting pressure on employers, giving more power to individual workers,” Avgar said. “But there’s also the contagion effect where employees see the successful effects of strikes or unionization pushes elsewhere. There’s a way in which these feed off each other.”

Look ahead

As the new omicron strain spreads quickly across the United States, threatening to draw the pandemic out even longer, it’s unclear what that will mean for workers. Many essential and low-wage workers suffered greatly during the pandemic on an individual level but were able to leverage their position collectively in select cases. 

“The labor shortage, the attitude shift on the part of workers in terms of expectations for working conditions, the shift in public attitude for workers unionizing, the pandemic is at the heart of all of those,” Avgar said. “There’s been a slow decline of labor over the past 60 years, but this year feels like there’s been a swing of the decline, like a whiplash.”

Still, even if the perfect storm of conditions continues into 2022, workers will face challenges as they advocate for themselves. 

“The examples of success are more numerous than in the past but this is not happening without some of the traditional opposition that companies and management have applied,” he said. “There are still serious structural and embedded forces that make it hard for employees to join a union or collectively bargain in the U.S. It’s not an unobstructed path.”