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America is On Strike. Here’s the Progress Unions Have Made

It seems like everyone is hitting the picket lines these days. And this past week, for the first time ever, that included a sitting president of the United States.

President Joe Biden’s unprecedented visit to the United Auto Workers picket line on Tuesday only brought more attention to the already high-profile strike by the UAW against General Motors, Ford and Stellantis. The picketer-in-chief urged on the strikers in the push for better contracts.

“You guys saved the automobile industry,” he said into a bullhorn on the picket line. “You made a lot of sacrifices. You gave up a lot when the companies were in trouble. Now they’re doing incredibly well. And guess what? You should be doing incredibly well, too.”

Biden’s brief remarks played on the sense of frustration many workers, both union and nonunion, have been feeling in recent years. The pandemic prompted reassessments of career paths, job demands and work-life balance. And a tight labor market gave many the courage to leave and search for other opportunities.

But the 6% of US workers represented by a union had another outlet: to bargain for a better contract, or, if refused, to go on strike.

“It’s been a good year for unions,” said Art Wheaton, director of labor studies at Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations school in Buffalo, New York. “You’ve seen a lot of successes, and that will help going forward. I give them a B+. Not an A.”

Even before Biden’s appearance, the UAW strike was historic because it’s the first time the union has walked out of all three unionized automakers at the same time.

So far the union has rejected automakers’ offers of immediate pay raises of at least 10% for the 145,000 UAW members and additional pay increases that could raise hourly wages by about 20% between now and spring of 2028.

“You deserve what you’ve earned, and you’ve earned a hell of a lot more than you’re getting paid now,” Biden told the strikers.

The summer – and fall – of strikes

Unions are flexing their muscles in ways they haven’t in decades, if ever.

The Writers Guild of America, with more than 11,000 members, and SAG-AFTRA, which represents 160,000 film and television actors, both went on strike early this summer against Hollywood studios, bringing filming to a screeching halt. It’s the first time both unions have been on strike at the same time since 1960, when Ronald Reagan was president of the Screen Actors Guild, one of the predecessors of the current actors union.

While the WGA settled its strike recently, winning improved wages and job protections, SAG-AFTRA remains on strike, and most filming remains on hold.

Next week, 75,000 workers at Kaiser Permanente are set to go on strike if they don’t reach a deal with the health care behemoth. The strike will affect dozens of facilities in California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Virginia and Washington, DC. Members of the coalition of unions, including nurses, therapists, technicians, dietary services, maintenance and janitorial staff, are set to walk out for a strike scheduled to last three days.

And there are plenty of strikes that are much lower profile, at companies few have heard of, where strikers number in the dozens, not the thousands.

Wins without strikes

Some of the unions’ biggest successes have come without a single worker hitting a picket line.

The Teamsters union used the threat of a record-setting strike by 340,000 members at UPS to achieve most of its bargaining goals, including significantly improved wages for the part-timers who make up most of the Teamster membership at the company. And a lower tier of wages for thousands of UPS workers hired since 2018 to let UPS move to six-day-a-week delivery was eliminated. Members voted overwhelmingly to approve the deal.

A deal was also reached in June for 22,000 members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union who work at 29 West Coast ports. They won a reported 32% increase in pay over the six-year life of a contract reached in June and ratified earlier this month.

But while the Teamsters and longshore workers avoided a walkout, the US labor movement is engaging in an increasing in the number of major strikes.

The number of strikes with 100 or more strikers that have lasted a week or more has soared to 56 in the first nine months of this year, according to a database of labor actions kept by the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations. That’s not only more than one a week, it’s up 65% from the same period of 2022.

Meanwhile, other smaller strikes include one-day strikes at Starbucks locations that voted to unionize but haven’t yet reached an initial contract. When including those smaller strikes, there were 396 strikes over the course of the last 12 months, or more than one a day.

Unions have also used short strikes, like the three-day action planned at Kaiser Permanente, to win many of their bargaining goals over the last year, from non-teaching school workers in Los Angeles to nurses in New York City. And unions that don’t get what they want from a first round of a strike can walk out again to increase the pressure on the company.

Not all these strikes ended in success.

Nearly 1,000 coal miners in Alabama returned to work at Warrior Met Coal in March after being on strike nearly two years, one of the longest US strikes in recent years. The United Mine Workers union never reached a deal on a new contract.

Still, the unions have been helped by near-decades lows in unemployment and by a larger number of job openings than job seekers. That gives workers leverage to demand better pay, improved health care or simply a better work-life balance.

Not just wages at issue

It’s not just wage and benefit improvements that unions are seeking. They also are demanding quality of life improvement, with better staffing, more time off, and protections against forced overtime.

Many of the health care workers unions say their main issue is lack of adequate staffing and the workers’ belief that they’re not able to provide the level of care they want without more help.

The Biden administration and Congress stepped into a labor dispute late last year when freight railroad workers threatened to strike. Congress and Biden wanted to prevent damage to the US economy if the four major freight railroads shut down. But they took heat from the unions by voting to impose a contract that did not include sick days.

More than 100,000 freight railroad workers received immediate 14% raises, back pay and raises totaling 24% over the five-year life of the contract. But most voted against the deals, complaining about quality of life issues, particularly the lack of sick days. Many saw the outcome as a defeat for the rail unions.

But since that congressionally mandated contract took effect, the railroads reached separate agreements with the rail unions that gave most of those rail workers the sick days they sought.

The public has often sided with the union in these disputes. A Gallup poll released at the end of August showed Americans sympathize more with the television and film writers than with the production studios, with 72% supporting the writers and 67% supporting the actors.

The public also sees unions having more power than in the past, and they approve of that, according to the poll. A record-high 61% believe unions help rather than hurt the US economy, topping the prior record set in a 1999 survey by six points.

And the number of people who want unions to gain more power has risen steadily to 43% today, up from a record low of only 25% in a 2009 survey following the Great Recession.

“Labor unions are enjoying a moment of high public approval and strong belief in the benefits they offer to workers, businesses and the economy,” said a Gallup statement. “Today’s striking workers may have a stronger hand in their negotiations than they would have had in the past given today’s elevated public support for unions.”

Source : CNN