Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, increasingly large numbers of U.S. workers have become unhappy with the conditions they have been forced to work under. Low wages and limited benefits, especially during a pandemic that has now killed more than 733,000 people in the United States, have incentivized many workers to either quit or demand for greater protections. These tactics have been working. A weeks-long strike by Nabisco workers ended last month with the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers’ International Union negotiating a new contract that included “hourly wage increases each year of the contract, increased company match to 401(k) contributions and updates to certain workplace policies” after Nabisco’s practices had drawn criticism from union members, according to The New York Times. Such strikes and attempts to unionize will certainly be beneficial for American workers in the short term, and the surge in worker protections could potentially revitalize the hopes of the long-suffering American working class.

In the 1980s, around 20 percent of U.S. workers belonged to a labor union. However, that percentage steadily declined over the years before settling at 10.8 percent in 2020. At the same time as union membership began to decline, the percentage of income belonging to the top 10 percent of Americans slowly but surely rose. Today, the top 1 percent of Americans control 16 times as much wealth as the bottom 50 percent. During the pandemic, many billionaires saw their wealth increase by massive amounts. Elon Musk witnessed a wealth increase of an astonishing 600 percent. Jeff Bezos’ wealth grew to $188 billion while his company defeated a union drive in Bessemer, Alabama, even after it was revealed that Amazon had the keys to a mailbox that many workers had used to mail in their ballots in the union vote. At the same time as these billionaires saw massive wealth increases, millions of working class Americans have struggled to pay rent or afford health care throughout the pandemic. It is no surprise that some economists have posited a link between decreased unionization and increased wealth inequality. In 2011, researchers from Harvard and the University of Washington concluded in a paper that “the decline of organized labor explains a fifth to a third of the growth in inequality.” The decline in quality of blue-collar jobs has clearly had a negative effect on both the working class and the larger U.S. economy. However, the recent waves of strikes and labor organizing suggest that the tide could yet turn.

Many Americans have clearly decided that the work environment in many of their jobs took too great a toll on their mental or physical health. This left workers with two options: quit or go on strike. Workers without a union, such as hospitality and retail workers, have seen notably high quit rates. In August, 892,000 hospitality workers quit, while 721,000 workers quit in the retail sector. These and other sectors, which have higher risks of contracting COVID-19, have seen the highest quit rates. It should be little surprise, then, that approval ratings for labor unions are at their highest levels since 1965, according to a Gallup poll from September which puts approval for labor unions at 68 percent. Workers with unions, such as those who went on strike against Nabisco and the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, have consistently been able to negotiate better working conditions for themselves. Even those who have not yet reached a new contract have significant leverage, such as United Auto Workers union members that are currently taking part a strike during John Deere’s highest profitable year, or the 1,400 workers striking at Kellogg’s cereal factories nationwide have at least been able to attract national attention.

All of this is good news for the U.S. working class and perhaps the larger economy. Labor unions are clearly enjoying a rare moment of strength and momentum with serious popular backing. Many working class Americans have realized that unions can still improve the quality of their jobs through the power of collective bargaining and potentially withholding their labor when necessary. Union workers have enough leverage to fight for a better workplace. For workers without unions, high quit rates across multiple industries are illustrative of the fact that U.S. workers want and deserve a better deal. Businesses will have to start providing it sooner rather than later.

Just as importantly, the movement for greater pay and benefits could be the first real boost the U.S. working class has received in decades. Increasing automation and stagnating wages have either pushed people out of work or cheapened the value of their labor. If this momentum continues, wages will finally start to tick back up, and the massive income inequality that currently exists in the United States will be lessened. That is how important this movement can be if workers and businesses decide to make it so.

Theodore Brita is a sophomore majoring in political science.