As Inflation Ruins American Thanksgiving, Look Abroad to Find the Right Political Response

In other countries, workers and unions have been walking off the job to demand higher wages to keep up with the cost of living. But in the US, where unions are weak and strikes are rare, the cost-of-living issue has been ceded to the Right.

Members of the communist trade union PAME protest against rising prices during a 24-hour general strike in Athens, Greece, on November 9, 2022. (Socrates Baltagiannis / picture alliance via Getty Images)

If the cost of hosting Thanksgiving dinner this year has left you a bit stunned, you’re not alone. A survey by the New York Farm Bureau found a 26 percent spike in the cost of the traditional American feast. Looking at the cost of turkey, potatoes (whether russet or sweet), pumpkin pie (filling and crust), and other typical items, the agency found this year to have the biggest year-to-year jump in the cost of a Thanksgiving meal in the thirty-year history of its annual survey.

Inflation is not just the unwelcome guest at the holiday dinner table; it will follow many of us to today’s Black Friday sales. The day after Thanksgiving — often fun for those who love bargain shopping — may be a subdued affair this year, and inflation is a major reason: people don’t have as much money to spend, and their discretionary cash won’t go as far.

While inflation has upended our usual Thanksgiving rituals — glorious feasting followed by blowout sales — it’s worth noting that America’s organized left has lagged behind our international counterparts in protecting workers from the damage. In many other countries, the labor movement has proposed a logical solution: higher wages to keep up with the cost of living.

This spring and summer saw a wave of strikes over inflation by Bangladeshi tea and garment workers. Others striking to demand higher wages during that period included thousands of truckers in South Korea (who have recently resumed their strike), health care workers in Zimbabwe, and unionized public sector workers in Tunisia.

That global protest wave has continued into the autumn and only escalated. In France, thousands of workers marched and engaged in walkouts and strikes throughout this fall, disrupting commutes on the Paris Metro. Greek workers in both public and private sector unions marched and went on strike earlier this month, grounding airplanes, idling ferries, and causing chaos. Workers in Belgium have also engaged in nationwide strikes. Workers in Spain engaged in mass protest, carrying signs demanding, “Salary hikes or social strife!”

Portugal’s public sector workers — from doctors to garbage collectors — staged a walkout last week, while Volkswagen workers in that country went on strike, all making the same demand. Thousands in Bulgaria, led by the country’s major trade unions, marched on the parliament building in Sofia, causing traffic jams, holding placards with slogans like “Inflation is rising, our salaries are not.” In South Africa, thousands of public sector workers went on a nationwide strike demanding a 10 percent pay hike to keep pace with inflation.

In the United Kingdom, railway workers are launching a series of strikes over this issue that will continue at least through the holiday season. Air France workers are planning disruption to Christmas travel. Other UK workers in both the public and private sector (including at ExxonMobil) are also planning work stoppages and strikes.

Though there are many other issues fueling the protests in Iran, inflation has played a role in major strikes and pensioners’ protests there, too.

Unfortunately, in the United States, where the inflation question has been entangled with partisan and ideological fights over last year’s Biden administration stimulus bill, the issue has been dominated by the Right. Conservative media covered the cost of living avidly, especially leading up the midterm elections. But the Right has no solution to the high (and rising) cost of living. Of course, you’ll never see Tucker Carlson standing with workers and asking for higher wages. Demagogues like him just like to use working people’s plight against Joe Biden.

For the same reason, inflation has failed to gel as a broad, cross-sectoral organizing issue for workers in the United States in the way it has abroad (though it has been mentioned in some recent US labor disputes, including the current strikes at University of California and the New School — both of which would be happening even without the recent rise in the cost of living, sparked as they are by years of poor conditions in academia), nor is it causing widespread disruption, bringing people into the streets, or unifying people against the bosses.

In addition to higher wages, there is something else that could improve the economic situation for ordinary people: peace. The war in Ukraine has caused energy and especially food shortages around the world and is thus a huge factor in the global cost-of-living increases. Russia and Ukraine typically provide about a quarter of the world’s wheat and one-fifth of its corn, and the US Federal Reserve predicted back in April that the conflict would increase inflation around the world, which is exactly what has happened. Yet when a group of House progressives released a mildly worded letter urging the Biden administration to pursue all available diplomatic opportunities to stop the fighting last month, they were denounced by a bipartisan chorus and ignominiously withdrew the letter. This, too, was a missed opportunity.

Building worker power and undermining the boss class is the only real answer to economic dislocations, so the lamentably weak state of the US labor movement has prevented the Left from capitalizing on the inflation issue — a problem so obvious that it follows us everywhere, from the Thanksgiving dinner table to the Black Friday sales at the mall the next day. Hopefully, in the coming months, we will see American workers joining their counterparts abroad by walking off the job and into the streets.