“Record profits mean record contracts. They’ve been competitive on our backs and it’s time they pay up.”
UAW President Shawn Fain
If you follow labor politics, you may have noticed a trend. There has been a recent uptick in strike and near-strike negotiations, union elections, and general labor militancy in the post-pandemic era of skyrocketing corporate profits yet flatlining working-class wages. In fact, wages have stagnated despite a strong economic turnaround at the beginning of the Biden Administration and the recent receding tide of inflation. Yet, regular Americans are still struggling to afford rising living, grocery, and transportation costs. In fact, come this October when student loan payments resume for the first time since the onset of COVID, 56% of borrowers say they’ll have to choose between paying their debt and buying groceries. With this economic reality sinking in, American workers are fighting back, in what the LA Times has deemed a “hot labor summer,” to describe the stepped-up pace of strike negotiations which saw over 323,000 workers– including nurses, actors, screenwriters, autoworkers, and restaurant servers– walk off the job in the first 8 months of 2023.
This marks a significant turnaround from decades of negative public sentiment towards unions, decreasing private sector union membership, and ignorance of labor struggles in US politics. Now, the nation is witnessing a resurgence of labor power supported by the most pro-labor National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) the US public has seen in decades. Just weeks ago, on August 25, 2023, Biden’s NLRB issued a landmark ruling that will change the fabric of labor organizing as we know it. In Cemex Construction Materials Pacific LLC, the Board ruled that, should an employer commit unfair labor violations in the run-up to a union election, such as illegally firing pro-union workers, then the employer will be forced to recognize the union and enter into contract negotiations with the workers. Firing pro-union workers had become routine in nearly every such election over the past 40 years due to cash penalties being negligible. Had this law been in effect during the February 2023 case, where Starbucks was found to have intentionally violated labor law by firing union organizers, the company would have been forced to recognize all of the unions they had illegally busted. The impact of this decision cannot be overstated: the most decisive factor in reducing US private sector unionization from 35% in the 1970s to 6% today is the union-busting behavior being curtailed by the NLRB in this decision.
This summer, many have grown aware of the widely-publicized WGA Screenwriters Union strike and the SAG, or Screen Actors Guild, strike that followed. Just this week, Bill Maher and Drew Barrymore came under fire for “scabbing”, as they continued production of their respective talk shows in violation of the strike rules. By doing so, these shows are undermining the workers fighting for protections in the form of a living wage and legal protection from the threat AI poses to their roles as actors and writers. Workers aren’t just revolting against the abuses of the entertainment industry, however– just this Friday, 1 in 10 autoworkers in the United States walked off the job at 3 plants under the control of Detroit’s “Big Three” automakers, under the leadership of UAW President Shawn Fain. Workers of the UAW are doing something never done before in US labor history: a sectoral strike across all three of the largest US automakers- General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis (owner of Chrysler)- to maximize the impact of their strike and the potential benefits they stand to gain. By distributing strikes across the industry, the UAW is demonstrating the significant power they hold as the people who make these vehicles. Fain’s strategy is to start at only three factories, and ratchet up the pressure by expanding the strike over time if the auto industry refuses to meet their demands. Their asks include: an end to the two-tiered wage system that allows companies to pay different wages for the same labor, a 36% pay raise across the board over 4 years, keeping with the skyrocketing nature of CEO pay, and job security among the transition to electric vehicle manufacturing. For his tough tactics, Fain has been lambasted by the likes of Jim Cramer, accused of “waging class warfare” for standing up for his union members. But workers on the picket line appreciate his militant strategy, with many saying it has been a long time coming: Chrism Hoslington, who has been working at the Toledo Jeep Factory since 2001, shared his view of the strike, “We didn’t have a problem coming in during COVID, being essential workers and making them big profits. We’ve sacrificed a lot.” Workers are no longer willing to delay fighting for a living wage and a fair, unionized workplace, and they’re standing up.
There is perhaps no better recent example of a pressure campaign mounted via the threat of an industry-wide strike than the late July gains won by the Teamsters at UPS. For months, the company refused to accede to delivery drivers’ demands of better workplace conditions– for example, air conditioning in UPS delivery trucks– and a pay raise that accurately reflects the work UPS drivers do for the US economy. Representing about 340,000 UPS drivers, Teamsters President Sean O’Brien negotiated a 5-year contract agreed upon by 86% of union members just days before the deadline, averting a strike that would bring the US economy as we know it to a halt. By leveraging the potential stoppage of the over 24 million packages shipped by UPS drivers daily (amounting to 25% of all US parcels and 6% of total GDP), the Teamsters secured a major victory. Their new contract resulted in a guarantee to all full-time employees of an annual salary of $170,000 including benefits, a promise to equip trucks with air conditioning to prevent worker injury, and an end to mandatory overtime for delivery drivers. There is no overemphasizing the significance of these gains: those at UPS can now pursue the American dream without fear of homelessness, bankruptcy, or starvation.
The summer of strikes and increase in labor militancy will be crucial in testing Joe Biden’s claim that he’s the “most pro-union president in American history.” Will he support the workers through his words and actions, or fall short once again of the American people’s expectations? Biden’s time in office has been a resurgence for workers, in no small part due to the appointees placed on the NLRB, and Biden’s public support for organizing efforts from his presidential platform. But this stands in stark contrast to his decision to curtail the efforts of Railroad workers last winter. When rail workers prepared to strike, Biden signed a bill to restrict their ability to do so, because of the harm it could do to the American economy. This justification demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of what a strike is meant to do: a strike is meant to do damage to the existing economy, it is meant to disrupt day-to-day operations, so the public, policymakers, and, most importantly, corporate bosses realize the extent to which these individuals’ invisible, unrewarded labor keeps the US economy in operation. By signing the bill to break the railroad strike, Biden has sowed doubt within labor activists throughout the nation about his true commitment to worker solidarity- doubts that will only be answered on the campaign trail and in the upcoming election.