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Over the last few weeks, the United States has had one of the biggest waves of labor strikes that it’s seen in recent history. Thousands of workers across different industries have been striking with demands including better pay, safer working conditions and more. This parallels a large worker shortage, as well as issues across the supply chain that have been happening this year. While these strikes may seem to have come out of nowhere for some, when analyzing how workers have been treated in America over the past few decades, it’s clear to see that this has been a long time coming.

The most common demand that has been seen during this recent wave of labor strikes has by far been better wages — after looking at minimum wage rates over the last few decades, it’s not very hard to understand why. Workers in the U.S. have seen barely any increases in wages over the past few decades, which is especially obvious when looking at minimum wage rates. In 1980, the minimum wage was $3.10, and which slowly increased to $7.25 in 2009 — the federal minimum wage has since stagnated. When accounting for inflation, this means that U.S workers have seen a 30% decrease in their wages over the past four decades, despite the cost of vital services like health care, housing and education increasing at the same rate as or more than inflation would suggest. This is shown by the cost of a degree more than doubling, health care expenditures increasing tenfold and the median cost of rent increasing by more than 500% since 1980. All of this makes it obvious that the U.S. minimum wage is no longer a livable wage, and hasn’t been for a while, with workers that make more than the minimum wage not doing much better. The average purchasing power for most American workers has practically stagnated over the last 50 years.

Considering how American wages have been handled in recent history, widespread worker anger would already be very understandable. But, when looking at the wages of the people they work for, their anger becomes all the more justified. Since 1978, the average salary of CEOs at the 350 largest companies in the U.S. has increased by a staggering 1,322%. Even when accounting for inflation, this means that the average salary of CEOs at the largest companies in the U.S. has tripled over the last 40 years. Workers have seen a net decrease in their pay over the last 40 years while their bosses have seen a massive increase — of course, they’re going to demand higher wages. Despite this staggering reality, for a long time, many workers didn’t protest or strike due to fear of losing their jobs and being replaced by someone who would take that low a wage. 

This shift in labor perspectives is highlighted in one of the biggest strikes that has occurred during the recent wave at John Deere. The strike started after a contract offered to the worker’s union by John Deere was considered lackluster, especially with John Deere’s profits being higher than ever (and the CEO getting a 160% raise). The main demands being made are higher wages and increased benefits that are more in line with what John Deere previously offered its employees. John Deere has offered multiple contracts in hopes to end the strike, but as of Nov. 3, these workers are still on strike.

With the labor shortage that this year has seen, companies can no longer replace workers as easily as they could in the past, meaning that many workers have finally gotten the leverage to tell their bosses they deserve to be paid more by rallying with other workers and striking. What puts even more pressure on these companies is that the labor shortage has left millions of jobs open, meaning that workers can easily find new employment if they’re not satisfied with their current job. This flexibility has been evident, particularly in August of this year, when more than four million workers quit their jobs

The recent wave of labor strikes in the U.S., while seemingly sudden, comes at a time where workers are finally able to fight for themselves after they’ve been screwed over for the last 50 years. The recent labor shortage has created somewhat of a lightning-in-a-bottle moment for workers to use their newfound leverage to finally get their fair share of pay when it comes to their labor.

Keoni Jones is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at jonejohn@umich.edu.