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'Striketober' is here, with workers increasingly vocal about what they want

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Workers all over the U.S. want a better deal, and they are striking or threatening to strike to get it. From factory floors to hospitals, employees are making their voices and their demands heard. NPR's Andrea Hsu has more.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: It's being called Striketober (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Woo (ph).

HSU: In a video posted to Twitter, workers at a John Deere plant in Iowa convince a freight driver not to cross the picket line.

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UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Woo.

HSU: More than 10,000 union workers who make John Deere's green and yellow farm equipment went on strike early this morning after rejecting a contract that included a 5 to 6% raise this year alone. They said that wasn't good enough. With employers desperate to fill jobs, workers are seizing the moment, making the most of their newfound leverage. Some are quitting jobs that don't pay enough, while others are fighting for better pay. In Michigan and several other states, 1,400 workers have been on strike against Kellogg, their complaints laid out in this union video.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: They want to take our cost of living away. They want to take our vacations. They want to take our holiday pay away.

HSU: The workers behind Frosted Flakes and Froot Loops are also calling out Kellogg's proposal for a two-tier system, lowering wages and cutting benefits for future employees.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: That's why we are striking - because we want the better pay, pension for everybody. It's not for only one group.

HSU: On the West Coast, health care workers at Kaiser Permanente are also mad about a proposed two-tier system, among other things. Their union has authorized a strike, though no date has yet been set. In all of these cases, workers say they continue to put in long, hard hours through the pandemic while their companies rake in the profits.

ALAA ABOU-ARAB: Especially after the last 18 months, it leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth.

HSU: Alaa Abou-Arab is an occupational therapist with Kaiser in Los Angeles. He's been working with COVID patients in the ICU, helping them regain the ability to do basic things like go to the bathroom. For him, the threatened strike at Kaiser is all about solidarity. A two-tier system would mean two classes of workers. He'd be working alongside someone else making a lot less money.

ABOU-ARAB: Somebody who's doing the exact same thing that I'm doing, who's got the same amount of training that I have, who has probably the same amount of student loans that I have.

HSU: He's afraid lower wages will make it harder to hire and keep good workers, and patient care could suffer. He says workers at Kaiser are patients, too.

ABOU-ARAB: You know, my son was born at Kaiser Permanente. My wife delivered there. So we're all in the same boat. There's no between.

HSU: For its part, Kaiser says health care is increasingly unaffordable, and wages are a big part of the problem. The company says union members earn 26% above the average industry wage. A two-tier system would help keep costs down without cutting the wages of current employees. It's an argument the Big Three automakers made back in 2007, when a two-tier system was introduced in Detroit. But Kristin Dziczek at the Center for Automotive Research says those were very different times.

KRISTIN DZICZEK: The survival of the industry was at stake.

HSU: Workers were glad to have a job. That's no longer a problem. The two-tier system is now gone from the production floor. The car companies and the unions both said it hurt morale. Newer workers who earn less felt ripped off - not something workers today want to put up with. Liz Marlow, an E.R. nurse at the Kaiser Hospital in Fontana, Calif., says what she wants right now is validation and support.

LIZ MARLOW: It's very stressful for the nurses. The nurses are burning out. Chronic short staffing has been a huge factor.

HSU: And it could become a bigger one if an acceptable deal is not reached. Andrea Hsu, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF RIVAL CONSOLES' "THEM IS US") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.