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Mike Elk on the 21st century labor movement and unrecognized general strike

Society’s collapsing, join a union (or start one)
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Mike Elk is an independent journalist and the publisher of Payday Report, the must-read email newsletter. He’s also recently contracted a particularly nasty case of COVID-19. You can donate to help him with his medical bills here.

Previously, Elk was the senior labor reporter at Politico. After being illegally fired during a union drive, he won a settlement that he used to help found his publication. In addition to the newsletter, Payday partners with various news outlets, including The New York Times, Washington Post, NPR, CNN, and The Economist.

One of the features of Payday Report is its Strike Tracker, an interactive map of the thousands of strikes that have taken the United States by storm since the pandemic began. While mainstream news ignores this story, or at best tries to explain it away as an example of people being too lazy to work, Elk says this strike wave may alter the relationship of workers to their employers for years to come.

Before Elk’s COVID diagnosis, I watched him cook dinner in his home in Pittsburgh, where I stuck a microphone in his face and asked him questions. Below is an edited transcript.

FAILED STATE UPDATE: So what is the strike wave that we're experiencing right now?

MIKE ELK: A lot of people are being forced to risk their lives during the pandemic, working in really crappy jobs as essential workers. And as Boots Riley told me, the biggest mistake of the ruling class was coming up with the term essential workers — because they're basically admitting that the working class isn't expendable. A lot of folks felt like they'd sacrificed quite a bit. Many died, many got sick, and now they're being asked to return to these crappy jobs without much pay. And many refuse to do it. Some of that is a result of enhanced unemployment benefits. Some of it is that a lot of people realize that if somebody's staying at home, they're saving a lot more money on childcare, and the quality of life is a lot better. And some of that is also due to the fact that two million people retired early and at the same time.

Also, Trump cut off a lot of immigration, so we're seeing a big labor shortage across the country. I think that's going to continue for some time to come. 

You're seeing employers in many places really respond to this. You know, raising wages — Sheetz is now paying $18.75 to start there retail, which is probably more than most freelance journalists I know make. And you could actually probably get some pretty good scoops at Sheets. So I might stop down, put in an application after we're done here. (laughs)

Would you call this an informal general strike?

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Yes. I think there is an informal general strike going on, and I think the media has been slow to pick up on it. I think even the labor movement has been really slow to pick up on it. I mean, when we first came out and said, "hey, we're seeing an unprecedented strike wave," there were all kinds of articles written criticizing us, claiming that we were juicing our numbers or something. With these walkouts at McDonald's and other places, we're seeing that workers are moving on their own and that the labor movement isn't keeping up with where they need to be on this.

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So why did you guys catch on to the strike wave while the traditional mainstream media didn't even know it was happening?

We were able to pick up on it simply because we're in that environment. I'm also an experienced labor reporter. I have 15 years on the beat, which is very uncommon. Maybe a half dozen other people in the country have that level of expertise on the beat, if that many.

A lot of what's happening on the labor beat is this whole "scabification" of the left-press. You have grad students coming in and taking jobs that traditionally belonged to journalists and turning them into these sort of "pontificating things."

They're essayists, essentially. 

Yeah. They're heavily based in New York and Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, so they're not tied to what's happening in most of the country. They're in this bubble of book parties and galleries and happy hours and all that stuff.

What does a 21st century labor movement look like?

It's much more decentralized, one that teaches people how to organize on the internet, one that teaches people how to quickly take direct action, one that doesn't focus so much on winning a union every time you strike. 

Right now, you can have these efforts where you have a big head of steam, workers want to walk out, and then you bring in the unions that say, "Let's go through this long bureaucratic process where a bunch of you are going to get fired. And you're going to lose enthusiasm. It's going to be boring and you're going to go to a bunch of meetings." That's a good way to kill a labor movement, y'know?

For more conversation with Mike Elk about the labor movement and Payday Report, check out his previous appearance on Failed State Update.