What’s behind Striketober: Unions representing more than 100,000 workers are on strike

October 14, 2021, 9:33 PM UTC

Thursday morning, more than 10,000 John Deere & Co. workers went on strike, the first major walkout for the agricultural equipment maker in 30 years. Nationwide, unions representing as many as 100,000 workers have walked out or are threatening to do so this month, amid rising corporate profits, a severe labor shortage, and a widening income gap. 

Some on social media are calling it “Striketober.” 

After years of declining strength, labor unions are flexing their collective muscles across the nation. In Michigan, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania, 1,400 Kellogg’s plant workers are on week two of a strike over forced overtime amid rising corporate profits. Health care workers across the nation are also walking the picket line over pandemic-fueled burnout and staff shortages. In California and Oregon, unions representing 38,000 Kaiser Permanente nurses and health care workers authorized a potential strike after contract negotiations stalled. Nurses have asked for 4% annual raises and more hiring following pandemic-induced burnout and low staffing levels. 

The complaints by workers have been lingering for years, but COVID-19 exacerbated them. Many U.S. essential employees have worked overtime throughout the pandemic, in conditions in which they’re chronically short-staffed or underpaid. Meanwhile, corporate profits have soared, and the wealth of billionaires has grown 62% over the course of the pandemic

“These workers have had lousy jobs for a long time, but they were largely unseen and voiceless,” said Bryant Simon, a labor historian at Temple University. Suddenly, they became essential workers. “The pandemic brought them into the spotlight.”

More strikes could be on the way. In Hollywood, an estimated 60,000 TV and film production crew workers indicated they’d strike Monday if they couldn’t secure a new contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents streaming operations of Walt Disney, Warner Bros., and Netflix. Similar demands are playing out with the San Antonio Symphony, in which employees authorized a strike to oppose deep financial cuts, and stagehands at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., also promised to hit the picket line over wage and job cuts. 

Calls for a “general labor strike” on Oct. 15 have also been widely circulating on TikTok, encouraging people to stay home from work and avoid purchases to push an agenda for higher wages, four-day workweeks, and more corporate accountability for the environment and sustainability. 

The current labor shortage and the Great Resignation have begun to shift the balance of power back to workers. Average earnings climbed 19 cents an hour in September, and they’re up $1 an hour more than last year, or 4.6%. A record number of people are quitting their jobs—an average of 4 million a month—encouraged by plenty of job openings and higher pay elsewhere. September job growth slowed to the year’s weakest pace, and there are an estimated 10.4 million unfilled jobs, according to the latest statistics by the U.S. Labor Department. That gives workers new leverage in a strike because employers will be hard pressed to find replacements if employees walk out. 

This month’s protests appear to be more of a “strike wave” than a movement, said Simon at Temple University. He points to 1946, when workers tried to get ahead after the breakneck pace of work and sacrifice during World War II. “But it could become a movement,” he said.

“Workers are fed up, wiped out, done-in, and run down,” wrote Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor, in an op-ed published in the Guardian. He has been beating the drum to a new narrative to the labor shortage with his organization, Inequality Media. “It’s a living-wage shortage, a hazard pay shortage, a childcare shortage, a paid sick leave shortage, and a health care shortage,” he wrote. “Unless these shortages are rectified, many Americans won’t return to work anytime soon.”

More must-read business news and analysis from Fortune:

Subscribe to Fortune Daily to get essential business stories straight to your inbox each morning.