The Media Today

Q&A: Johnnie Kallas of Cornell’s Labor Action Tracker on the labor beat in 2024

January 10, 2024
President Joe Biden joins striking United Auto Workers on the picket line, Sept. 26, 2023, in Van Buren Township, Mich. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

Last year was a huge one for organized labor in the United States. Across four hundred and thirty-five individual actions, approximately half a million workers—a share of Americans roughly the size of Wyoming—went on strike. Labor was a defining story of the year (even if many of these individual actions flew under the radar of national media). Between the visibility and scale of the Hollywood actors’ walkout, autoworkers’ ultimately successful rolling work stoppages, and the sight of a serving US president on a picket line, “2023 Was the Year of the Strike—and Big Victories,” the Wall Street Journal noted in December. Labor Notes, a media and organizing project run by union members themselves, offered a similar summary: “Big Strikes, Bigger Gains.”

Both these articles cited data compiled by the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University, which maintains the Labor Action Tracker. The tracker was created in the fall of 2020 to “provide a comprehensive database of strike and labor protest activity across the United States,” and is directed by Johnnie Kallas, then a Cornell PhD student, now an assistant professor at the University of Illinois. After college, Kallas was a union organizer in Ohio, Tennessee, and California, before moving back to academia to research the phenomena he had experienced as an active member of the labor movement. Kallas and his team of researchers seek out, fact-check, and compile information about ongoing strikes. Their data is much more extensive than that provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which, due to the definitions it employs, only reported thirty-two strikes last year (up to November).

Ahead of what promises to be another big year on the organized-labor beat, I spoke with Kallas about the lessons the media should learn from its coverage last year, where it should train its focus this year, and how the story of a strike starts well before a picket line forms and ends long after a contract is signed. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

KL: What is the Labor Action Tracker? Why was it necessary to build it?

JK: The Labor Action Tracker is a publicly accessible database of strike activity displayed on an interactive map. The major reason we created the project is because official data sources in the United States only capture a small fraction of the total number of strikes in the country. The Bureau of Labor Statistics used to keep really good strike data until funding cuts by the Reagan administration in the early eighties. Since that point, the BLS only documents work stoppages involving a thousand or more workers; that last at least an entire shift; and that occur on a workday, which is defined as a non-weekend, non–federal holiday. With such narrow inclusion criteria, they exclude the vast majority of strike activity. We wanted to create a database that is a comprehensive account of strike activity—regardless of the size of the strike or whether the workers who are on strike belong to a union.

We have a team of excellent research assistants, both undergraduate and graduate students at Cornell. We do a series of daily Google News searches and social media searches of key terms to find different strikes and labor protests. Then we manually add those to our database. We’re not just interested in whether a strike occurs, but we list all these other variables—the employer, the union or labor organization, the industry, the authorization status, the demands—and we link to the sources. We compile data on a lot of different points, which is why we require at least two sources to add an action to our tracker. We usually generate those sources from news media and sometimes social media. We also have relationships with certain unions and labor organizations that sometimes feed us leads as well. 

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As someone who is immersed in labor media, what were your observations about the coverage of strikes and other labor actions in 2023?  

There are a lot of really excellent journalists covering things on the front lines, and I don’t know if that’s always reflected in more mainstream publications. As somebody who looks at a lot of articles on strikes, there’s quite a wide variation in the familiarity that reporters have with the labor movement; I think understandably so. But I do think there has been more attention paid to it—in the mainstream press, and it has [also] been pushed by alternative news sources.

Since you started the tracker, have you noticed changes in the media’s rhetoric, headlines, or framing around strikes and labor actions?

The media likes its slogans. “Strike-tober” from 2021 was a big thing. What was it last year: Hot Labor Summer? I do think that the media is looking for eye-popping headlines, though it’s not entirely made up—those were real phenomena. In 2023, when actors and writers went out, it generated a lot of coverage because those strikes aren’t just huge in terms of numbers, they impact everyone. It is very disruptive. The autoworkers’ strike and the Teamsters’ strike threat at UPS—even though it didn’t result in a strike—were headline-grabbing; there is still something about the autoworkers that is tied to the history of the US labor movement, and also the history of the United States. There are certain buzzwords that people in the mainstream press like to run with, too. A big one is that economists like to talk about the relationship between labor market conditions and strife—we have high inflation, and that’s why there have been all these strikes. That is often an argument I read in news articles, and frankly, I’ve been quoted to that degree because I think that high inflation rates are a factor in driving strikes. But it’s not the only factor.  

My expectation is that the media is going to go to the story that seems sexiest or most disruptive or most politically contentious or whatever it might be. There are certain groups of workers who may be organizing or on strikes that don’t generate media attention. A few years ago, fast-food workers were at the center of a lot of the organizing and strike conversations. Since then, they have continued to strike in high numbers—at least in terms of the quantity of strikes—but they’re not getting attention. That is probably because there are other, very large, disruptive strikes by unionized workers going on, like the organizing campaign at Starbucks. I don’t think anyone would say that that hasn’t gotten a lot of media attention. Unfortunately, that’s not because it’s a group of baristas; it’s because of the employer they’re organizing.

What do you think was missing from the media coverage last year, in particular?

The big question is, What moment are we in? We do have this relative increase in strikes and these exciting organizing campaigns at places like Starbucks and Amazon, but is this a transformative moment or is it a flash in the pan? Is there a way to look at that beyond normal metrics, such as the unionization rate, which a lot of news articles often go through? The rate is obviously important, but it is just as important to feature the voices of workers who are involved in these strikes—and not just about the strike, but about their work, what led them to go on strike, what led them to get involved in an organizing campaign. A worker-centered approach.

What do you think the media should be looking for on the labor beat in 2024?

It’s twofold. First, does that level of strike activity continue to increase? And then there’s the question of union organizing and bargaining first contracts: Do successful strikes translate into organizing gains and organizing success? What is happening with these first contract negotiations, at Starbucks especially, but also at Amazon, Trader Joe’s, and other companies? At Starbucks, they have won elections at close to four hundred stores, and they do not seem to be close to a first contract. Twenty twenty-four is the year we are going to find out whether they are going to be able to negotiate that first contract—whether the company will meaningfully come to the table [to negotiate] or not.

Why is winning a first contract such an important story?

Under US labor law, there is a big distinction between organizing a union, winning an election, and negotiating a first contract. Just to win an election is incredibly hard. That is where most of the attention is paid, because that is how you form the union. It is already hard enough for the union to prevail, but if they do, then both parties are supposed to come from that antagonistic positioning to a collaborative one to negotiate a contract. That is really challenging to do. It’s made especially challenging because there is nothing that mandates an employer negotiate a contract. When you have an employer the size of Starbucks with as much star power as it has, they can just keep delaying contract negotiations. That is what workers are up against.

What questions about the tracker and labor media should I be asking that I haven’t yet? 

Attention should be focused on how people experience work. Why are they organizing and fighting in the first place? What are the real issues that are motivating this? How do people experience their work? This is an important story for the media to convey. Our tracker does track demands, but hearing the stories firsthand from workers, which our tracker doesn’t do, can move beyond the bureaucratic constraints that you do see. By bureaucratic I mean, union negotiators met with employers, and they hammered out these details. All of that is true and important, but not focusing on the issues that workers have. Getting to the root of the problem, getting to the stories of workers, can be really refreshing. The story of labor organizing happens before the strike.

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, in Ecuador, armed men wearing masks infiltrated a TV studio in the city of Guayaquil during a news broadcast and ordered journalists and station staffers to lie on the floor; the feed was broadcast live for fifteen minutes, before finally being cut. (“We are on air, so you know that you cannot play with the mafia,” one of the gunmen said.) Police eventually moved in and arrested thirteen assailants; no one was hurt. The shocking on-air scenes came as Ecuador spirals further into drug- and gang-related violence; Daniel Noboa, the president, has declared states of emergency and “internal armed conflict.” Last year, Fernando Villavicencio, a crusading journalist turned presidential candidate, was assassinated at a rally. (Jon Allsop wrote about his death.) 
  • Also yesterday, Kevin Merida abruptly stepped down as the executive editor of the LA Times after nearly three years in the post; he offered no specific reason for his departure beyond “soul-searching” about his career, but the New York Times reports that he had recently clashed with the paper’s owners, the Soon-Shiong family, over editorial and financial decisions. In other media-jobs news, Wired announced that Brian Barrett, a former staffer at the magazine, will return as executive editor. And Don Lemon, who was ousted from CNN last year following a string of controversies, announced that he will host a show on X, calling the platform “the biggest space for free speech in the world.”  
  • Yesterday morning, X (“the biggest space for free speech in the world”) suspended the accounts of several journalists and left-wing commentators, including Steven Monacelli, of the Texas Observer, and Ken Klippenstein, of The Intercept. The platform initially offered no reason for the suspensions, and the accounts were later reinstated. Elon Musk, the owner, suggested that they had inadvertently been targeted as part of a routine sweep for spam, but some of those affected expressed skepticism about that explanation, instead pointing to their political views and past criticism of Musk
  • Last year, Mike Lawler, a freshman Republican congressman from a swing district in New York State, courted criticism after he banned out-of-district reporters from town hall events and threatened to expel attendees who recorded his remarks. Now Lawler has effectively rescinded the ban; he said that he instituted it “to prevent these town halls from being hijacked by out-of-district political grandstanders,” but conceded that it could have been implemented better. The Rockland/Westchester Journal News has more.
  • And Joan Acocella, a critic for The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, has died. She was seventy-eight. “There seemed to be no subject that she couldn’t take on,” Alexandra Schwartz writes. Acocella “put David Remnick in mind of both Virginia Woolf and the hardboiled sportswriter Heywood Broun. Naturally, Joan described her own style best. ‘I like a little sand in my oyster,’ she said—a motto to live by.”

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Correction: A previous version of this story misstated Johnnie Kallas’ position. He is currently an Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois’ School of Labor and Employment Relations.

Kevin Lind is a CJR fellow.