The roll call of unions that have actually changed the trajectory of American labor is relatively short: the United Auto Workers, the Mine Workers, and other CIO unions in the 1930s and ’40s, as factory workers organized; AFSCME and the American Federation of Teachers in the 1960s and ’70s, as unions took hold in the public sector.
Today, a much smaller union, punching way above its weight, is vying to join that list. After 40 years in a desert of union decline, workers’ ultimate weapon to win what’s rightly theirs—the strike—looks to be coming back, a long-overdue development that I discuss and analyze in some detail in my article on the Prospect website today. In that piece, I note that 2021 is beginning to look like 1919 and 1946, the years in which America experienced its greatest number of strikes. To be sure, today, with the private-sector rate of unionization reduced to less than 7 percent, most of the striking is individual rather than collective: employees refusing to return to their old poor-paying no-benefit jobs, creating a worker shortage that has compelled such anti-union behemoths as Amazon and Walmart to raise their employees’ wages. In tandem with this new form of individualized collective bargaining (ours is a time that requires oxymorons), unions themselves are beginning to strike, a phenomenon not seen ever since Ronald Reagan busted the air traffic controllers union when it went on strike in 1981.
And the union leading the charge today is the BCTGM, the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers Union, founded in the same year as the American Federation of Labor: 1886.
You’re forgiven if you haven’t heard of the BCTGM, but they’re the folks who put breakfast on your table, bread in your sandwich, and candy in your kids’ time-to-see-the-dentist mouths. This year, though, they’re also the folks who are restoring a needed level of strategic militance to American labor. In July, protesting the crazy hours they were compelled to work (in some cases, up to 84 hours a week), their members struck a Frito-Lay plant in Topeka. The following month, members struck five Nabisco factories across the nation, also to protest the plethora of hours and the dearth of benefits. They’ve done a bang-up job of pressuring those corporations to grant their workers’ demands, by both striking and publicizing the absurd schedules and conditions their members were compelled to endure.
Now, this week, BCTGM members have struck every Kellogg factory in the United States, after negotiations over schedules and benefits had produced no results. Kellogg workers have documented how they’ve been compelled to work straight through the weekend, and how some have had to work 12-to-16-hour days to keep turning out those Frosted Flakes.
Though I’ve been writing about unions for the past 40 or so years, this is the first time I’ve written anything about the BCTGM. I can tell you that since this spring, the union has had a new president, Anthony Shelton, but I can do no more than infer that this may have something to do with the union now having to produce more picket signs.
But I do know that this outburst of militance has a lot to do with the same factors that produced the strike waves of 1919 and 1946. Those were the years following the two world wars, of course, when the words "front line" still meant exposure to deadly fire. Today, as the pandemic (we hope) recedes, it refers to workers who had to show up every workday and risk contracting a potentially fatal virus. In all three cases, those workers were hailed as heroes, and in all three cases, most of the jobs to which they either returned or continued to hold offered pay and working conditions that were anything but heroic.
So—strikes then and strikes now. And this time around, with the bakers leading the way.