Kansas City CVS pharmacies, WyCo Fairfax plant dark: Is change for workers in the air? | Opinion

General Motors has shut down its Fairfax Assembly and Stamping plant in Wyandotte County for now, as a labor strike at another factory near St. Louis strangles the flow of parts across Missouri. And late last week, pharmacists called in sick at 12 Kansas City-area CVS locations in protest of what they say are worsening conditions for workers.

America just celebrated Labor Day, but could 2023’s “summer of strikes” be poised to continue into the fall? More than 360,000 U.S. workers have gone on strike in 2023 so far, CNBC reports. By this time in 2021, that number was 36,600.

Friday afternoon, United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain announced that the union was expanding its parts distribution shutdowns at all GM and Stellantis sites “until those two companies come to their senses and come to the table with a serious offer.”

Meanwhile, Hollywood has been pretty much closed for business since May. Screenwriters and actors are holding out on creating new work until their agreements with the studios are brought up to date, giving them a bigger share of the revenue from the online subscription streaming services that have upended the show business model in just a few short years.

What exactly do autoworkers, pharmacists, TV writers and actors have in common? They all perform valuable tasks — pharmacists, invaluable — that the pubic wants and needs. U.S. labor numbers continue to show strength with low unemployment, even in the face of interest hikes. Theoretically, this should be a worker’s market, with companies competing to offer premium perks.

After all, American employers should be able to afford it, right? Big pharma keeps raking in tens of billions in profits, boosted in the past couple years by the success of COVID-19 vaccines. Despite supply chain issues, the automotive industry’s bottom line is surging while car prices have soared — 20% higher than in 2019. Entertainment giants Warner Bros. Discovery, Paramount and streaming newcomer Apple brag about huge boosts in revenue and new subscribers.

The people who build cars have seen a significant decrease in what they’re paid over the years.
The people who build cars have seen a significant decrease in what they’re paid over the years.

American autoworkers’ real wages in decline

The good times don’t seem to be trickling down from the corner suites, though. So maybe it’s time for a readjustment in our attitudes about what work is really worth, anyway. The people who make sure we get our medications in the correct dosages can earn good, but not extravagant money: The Bureau of Labor Statistics says their mean hourly wage is about $62, or just over $129,000 a year, for skills that demand six to eight years of specialized study.

But things aren’t looking up for those who build cars and trucks. The Washington Post ran the numbers, and determined that autoworkers have been getting paid less in recent years, adjusted for inflation: “about $32.70 an hour on average, or 30% less than they did at their 2003 peak.

Missouri and Kansas don’t have a lot of full-time screen actors or writers, but even in Los Angeles, those gigs can be hard to come by, and many of them are one-offs. For every Sandra Bullock or Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, there are untold numbers of hopefuls who can’t get a job, and many others barely able to pay for rent and food. A rep for the TV and movie actors’ union told Rolling Stone this summer that only 14% of members make enough to qualify for its health care plan, and just 7% earn more than $80,000 a year. So much for silver screen glamour.

Multimillionaire wants ‘pain in the economy’

Tim Gurner’s name was burning up in social media earlier this month, and likely not for the reasons he’d want. Speaking to an audience at a commercial real estate conference, the multimillionaire Australian developer said COVID-19 shutdowns and sheltering in place made workers “arrogant” — and in need of a harsh course correction.

“We need to see pain in the economy,” he said. “We need to remind people they work for the employer, not the other way around.”

Gurner’s cartoon villainy was condemned and mocked by critics around the globe. In these days of shocking income inequality, with CEO compensation wildly outpacing both average worker pay and the stock market, a one-percenter whining about those snooty laborer types is misreading the room badly. He’s also dead wrong.

The mid-20th century saw unprecedented leaps in the quality of life for the people of industrialized nations. But there’s a pervasive feeling among younger generations that things have stopped getting better. U.S. wages haven’t kept pace with inflation for years. Skyrocketing real estate prices and the still-new phenomenon of immense student loans have many young Americans demoralized about their chances at home ownership, which their parents and grandparents were able to achieve while holding down even modest jobs.

Politicians fight minimum wage, organized labor

Too many of our leaders aren’t doing a thing to help out. It’s hard to believe, but the federal minimum wage is stuck at the same $7.25 it’s been at since 2009, and where it still stands in Kansas. In Missouri, voters finally forced obstinate politicians’ hand with a 2018 initiative petition that nudged the state minimum up to $12 an hour just this year. The Raise the Wage Act of 2023 aims to boost the federal minimum to $17 by 2028 — an idea that might find a home in today’s radically new version of conservatism.

Will things really get better for workers? “Pro-business” lawmakers keep trying to combat the might of organized labor, urged on by armies of corporate lobbyists. The Supreme Court’s disastrous, wrongheaded 2010 Citizens United decision opened the floodgates for billionaire dark money to spread resentment, fear and misinformation nearly unchecked, usually via the Wild West internet. Rampant government corruption steals taxpayer dollars, from rural city halls all the way to Washington. The wealthiest entrepreneurs have the means to keep their thumbs on the scale in multiple ways. It’s easy to be cynical.

But when the workforce bands together, management can’t help but notice. Labor strikes have been responsible for great strides in employee earnings, workplace safety and overall well-being. They’ve gotten results before, and they can again. Today, it’s pharmacy counters darkened, welding machines switched off and camera crews idled while the big bosses insist they simply can’t cut a better deal for the boots on the ground.

We’ll see about that.