Feb 05, 2024

Workers are striking across America for higher wages

July was one of the busiest months for strikes in three decades, reflecting growing public support for unions and increased worker leverage in an era of low unemployment, as tens of thousands of workers have pushed employers for higher wages to keep up with high inflation.

The labor unrest erupting in Hollywood, where 170,000 actors have joined 11,500 screenwriters on picket lines, is far from the only example of workers banding together to demand more from their employers this summer. Baristas, national park bus drivers, hotel housekeepers, lawyers, book sellers, locomotive plant workers, sour cream producers and brewery workers also went on strike in July.

Meanwhile, 150,000 autoworkers at the Big Three Detroit automakers are threatening to walk off the job as soon as mid-September. And just last week, the country narrowly avoided the biggest strike in years. Some 340,000 UPS workers were poised to walk out, until a temporary agreement gave way to some of the biggest wage gains for those workers in decades. Those workers must vote to approve the deal and could still walk off the job.

Public support for unions has been steadily rising since the Great Recession and took off during the coronavirus pandemic, with 71 percent of Americans approving of unions, according to a 2022 Gallup survey, a high not seen since 1965. Half of workers in nonunion positions say they would support a union forming in their workplace, a Washington Post-Ipsos poll of workers finds. Meanwhile, one of the tightest labor markets in decades, with the unemployment rate hovering near five-decade lows, is affording workers increased power to strike, especially as wages have not kept up with rising inflation for many workers until recently.

30 years of strikes: See how Hollywood’s walkout stacks up to the past

“It’s almost like a perfect storm,” said Thomas Kochan, a professor of industrial relations at MIT who attributes this summer’s labor unrest to a “difference in perception between workers and employers.”

“Workers and union members are looking at their loss of income — because of high rates of inflation, plus employers doing very well — and they’re looking to catch up on lost income,” Kochan said. “Employers are looking ahead and saying we may go into a recession, so we have to be as conservative as possible.”

Some 323,000 workers have already gone on strike in 2023, according to Bloomberg Law data, making it the busiest year for strikes since 2000, with the exception of a wave of strikes by public-sector teachers and state and local government workers in 2018 and 2019.

In the aftermath of the pandemic shutdowns, employers scrambled to compete for workers, driving down unemployment, and wages began to rise at the fastest pace in decades. Still, these gains, until recently, had been wiped out by scorching inflation for everyone except those at the very bottom of the pay ladder, such as fast-food and child-care workers. Finally, after months of aggressive action by the Federal Reserve to cool rapidly rising prices for fuel, housing and food, higher wages are beating inflation, which was down to a 3 percent annual rate in June from a peak of 9 percent in 2022. In June, average hourly wages rose by a 4.4 percent annual rate to $33.58 per hour.

Still, workers say they are struggling to make ends meet as the companies that they work for have raked in enormous profits.

In the ongoing Hollywood strikes, for example, actors and screenwriters say they’ve seen their residuals — a form of royalty payment as shows get watched and re-watched — plummet as the industry has transitioned from cable TV to streaming services. Under the new model, writers and actors are compensated based on the number of subscribers to a streaming platform, rather than view counts, which has driven down pay, union members say.

Taylor Orci, a screenwriter who worked on Starz show “Vida” in 2019, has hustled to make ends meet on about $70,000 for years. But when the pandemic hit and “Vida” was canceled, Orci hit rock bottom, taking home $18,500 in 2021. Since then, their residual checks have been nearly nonexistent. These days Orci rations food, bikes to avoid paying for gas, and lets amenities in their San Fernando Valley apartment break down rather report them to their landlord in hopes of avoiding a rent increase.

“This is a fight that we’ve all been prepared for,” said Orci, 40, who has led chants on picket lines in recent days outside the Netflix headquarters in Hollywood. “I’ve worked for multiple Emmy-nominated shows. … I just want a middle-class life.”

The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the group negotiating on behalf of the studios, says that the actors union has rejected an offer with “historic pay and residual increases.” The group also says streaming has benefited workers by making it easier for them to earn money off shows that are canceled or unpopular. (AMPTP’s members include Amazon, which was founded by Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos. The Post’s interim CEO, Patty Stonesifer, sits on Amazon’s board.)

Wages were also at the heart of a recent contract battle for UPS employees, who make up the largest single-employer union in the United States. After months of building up one of the most aggressive strike threats in recent history, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters walked away last week with a deal with UPS that boosts pay for all of its employees by $7.50 an hour over the next five years. It’s the strongest contract the union has won in decades.

One of the most contentious issues was pay for the company’s more than 150,000 part-time workers. If the new contract is ratified, it would raise current pay for the average part-time worker by nearly 50 percent over the next five years. New part-time hires would start at $21 an hour, but some part-time workers — especially those working in cities where costs are higher — are still upset and want their wages to start at $25 an hour.

UPS and Teamsters reach agreement, averting Aug. 1 strike

“We’re seeing these wage settlements that would have been unthinkable just a couple years ago,” said Barry Eidlin, a sociologist at McGill University. “But we’re also seeing some union members still being unsatisfied with unprecedented wage increases. In any other environment, this would be a no-brainer [contract] ratification.”

In Michigan, contract negotiations between the United Auto Workers and big Detroit automakers Ford, General Motors and Stellantis began in mid-July and are shaping up to be the most tense in years — with wages and compensation at the heart of talks. The union’s combative new president has all but said that some or all of the UAW’s 150,000 autoworkers will strike if they don’t make progress at the bargaining table.

The automotive sector is vital to U.S. manufacturing, making up about 3 percent of gross domestic product. UAW workers produce nearly half of the light vehicles manufactured in the United States, according to GlobalData, so any prolonged strike would pose risks for the wider economy.

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“Whether or not there’s a strike, it’s up to Ford, General Motors and Stellantis, because they know what our priorities are. We’ve been clear,” UAW President Shawn Fain, wearing a T-shirt with a Malcolm X quotation about fighting for freedom, said in a Facebook Live appearance in July. “If the Big Three don’t give us our fair share, then they are choosing to strike themselves, and we’re not afraid to take action.”

Fain, elected in March with a remit to reinvigorate the union, has repeatedly criticized recent UAW leadership as being too soft in negotiations with the companies. He has vowed to claw back pay and benefits that autoworkers lost after the Great Recession, and pledged to fight for greater job security as the industry transitions to electric vehicles.

Among his priorities: reinstating regular cost-of-living adjustments to wages, ending a tiered employment structure that offers lower compensation to many new workers and ensuring that EV battery and vehicle plants offer the same compensation and job security as those in the gasoline era.

Even as labor activity surges, Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California at Santa Barbara, cautions against overstating the magnitude of this summer’s strikes. To be sure, only 10 percent of American workers are unionized. And while many Americans have complaints about work, most workers do not strike. Still, he says, attitudes toward unions are changing.

“Employers discredited themselves during the pandemic,” Lichtenstein said. “Their profits went way up, and they weren’t taking care of workers. So there’s been a delegitimization and loss of faith in big business.”

Lichtenstein also said that this summer’s union activity stands out because unions are not making concessions to employers, as had become typical of labor negotiations in recent decades. Instead, unions are trying to take back what they’ve lost over the years and making new kinds of requests of employers, especially related to new technological developments and the rising costs of housing.

“There’s a level of ambition here,” Lichtenstein said. “Most strikes [since the 1980s] have been defensive, where the company wants to take away something. The unions want to preserve and advance.”

In Erie, Pa., for example, where 1,400 workers at the locomotive manufacturer, Wabtec, have been on strike for more than 40 days, union workers are demanding that the company work with them to push the railroads to buy green locomotive engines. In their new contract, UPS union members won a ban on driver-facing surveillance cameras in their vans and a guarantee of air-conditioning units in new vans starting next year.

Thousands of hotel workers on strike this summer in Southern California are asking their employers, including the Sheraton Universal and JW Marriott, to impose a 7 percent tax on guests at unionized hotels to help hotel workers find affordable housing. But the group representing hotels in the negotiations suggests that workers can’t ask for that kind of thing and has filed legal charges against the union, alleging it violated labor law by going on strike over demands that “had nothing to do with our employees.”

Even as workers flex their power, the labor market is showing signs of softening from its peak last year, with worker shortages easing up. Job creation has fallen and leveled off, job openings have fallen, and the unemployment rate has modestly ticked up this year. Some labor experts warn this could mean the window for scoring major labor victories could be narrowing, although they acknowledge that there has been a fundamental shift in the public consciousness toward unions.

“A recession might tamper some expectations,” said Kochan, the industrial relations professor at MIT. “But we’re not going back to the modest settlements of the last few decades when unions didn’t have a lot of bargaining power. Workers are looking for a new social contract.”

Jeanne Whalen contributed to this report.