What’s behind Hot Strike Summer

Everyone, it seems, is on strike or threatening to be. Not only have delivery drivers, teachers, and hotel workers taken to picket lines in recent months, so have the people who play them on TV.

Actors in SAG-AFTRA and writers in the Writers Guild of America (WGA) are both on strike — the first time that’s happened in 63 years. In July, United Airlines pilots negotiated a 40 percent raise over the next four years, and soon after American Airlines pilots were able to get a similar deal (both unions had voted to strike if they didn’t get a suitable contract). UPS narrowly missed a strike this summer that could have disrupted much of the US economy, gaining big pay increases for both full- and part-time workers, in addition to things like AC in new trucks and no forced overtime on their days off.

This was all after Starbucks workers, upset with their company’s refusal to bargain for a first contract, went on strike at more than 150 locations around the country earlier this summer. Meanwhile, Amazon drivers, hotel staff, and fast food workers have all been on strike at some point this summer. And more big strikes are potentially on the horizon as the contract between the United Auto Workers and the Big Three American auto manufacturers will expire this fall.

“All these different struggles, all happening at the same time, in all these different industries, involving all these different groups of workers, all making these connections between their struggles,” Barry Eidlin, an associate professor of sociology at McGill University, said.

“You’re seeing that in a way that I have not seen in my lifetime.”

Like the year before it, 2023 is shaping up to be a big year for strikes. It’s only halfway through the year and there have been 177 work stoppages, according to data provided by Bloomberg Law. Before last year, when there were a total of 316 strikes, the last time the number of work stoppages was that high was 2007 — and that was for the full year. Of course, this level of labor action is nowhere near what America had in the decades prior to the 1990s, when a much bigger share of the population was unionized. Still, experts say the recent uptick is unique and notable — and potentially part of a resurgent labor movement.

But Eidlin says it can be tough to know when you’re in the middle of it. He noted that during the civil rights movement, there was a lot of time between hugely important events, like the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954 and the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955, and the iconic Greensboro sit-ins of 1960 and the Freedom Rides of 1961.

“If you’re in 1958 or ’59, there’s nothing telling you that this one court decision and this one bus boycott in this one place is going to be what we now see as the beginnings of this big movement that changes the entire society,” Eidlin said. “There are these sort of episodic bursts, and you only connect the dots retroactively.”

UPS workers in brown uniforms carry signs that read “UPS Teamsters: Just practicing for a just contract.”

UPS workers held a practice picket before they agreed to a contract.
Jeff Kowalsky/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The current potential labor moment — if it is one — might have started with teacher strikes in Chicago in 2012 and in Arizona, West Virginia, and Oklahoma (the so-called Red State Revolt) in 2018 and 2019, according to Eidlin.

But why are so many workers striking now? A constellation of factors is at play.

Much of the union activity has to do with structural issues of inequality that were exacerbated by the pandemic, during which the public called many people “essential workers” while their employers treated them like the opposite. For many, working conditions worsened over the past three years, and worker pay hasn’t kept up.

“The big deal is something that’s been a problem in the US for centuries: The rich get rich and the poor get poorer,” Art Wheaton, director of labor studies at Cornell University’s ILR School, said. “And right now, the CEOs and executives have been doing really, really well in terms of their compensation over the last five years. And people can’t even keep up with inflation.”

He added, “If billionaires have enough money to fly to space and you can’t pay your rent, you have no sympathy for the company.”

Rising wages haven’t kept up with inflation, which means that working people don’t have the same spending power they once did, making workers’ situations more tense. At the same time, companies have raked in record profits, which is not sitting well with their employees.

Meanwhile, unemployment rates have stayed at or near-record lows, emboldening employees to strike since they have other options. The pandemic also made many realize what was important in life, pushing them to “work to live” rather than “live to work.” Indeed, many of the same factors that fed the Great Resignation are fueling the strikes.

“There’s a general tension and discontent,” Wheaton said. “So going out on strike is a release to let people express some of their frustration, trying to say, ‘We deserve better.’”

This year also happens to be one in which a number of major union contracts are up for negotiations. And union leaders are taking a much more aggressive approach than they have in years past to try and get bigger wins for their members. The strikes are about getting big pay jumps and much better conditions, rather than defending against concessions.

And workers themselves are driving many of the labor actions, in what’s considered a much more grassroots approach to organizing than in recent history. That means workers are more personally invested in their labor actions than if they were simply compelled to do so by their union.

Labor activity also feeds off other labor activity. When one group of workers witnesses another group of workers strike — or actually win better conditions and pay, as the Teamsters did with UPS — it inspires others to do so. A win in one union can also give other unions leverage. American Airlines pilots, for example, pointed to the United Airlines contract in their negotiations. And the UPS contract will likely spell higher wages even for non-union FedEx workers in a tight hiring market, lest FedEx lose much-needed employees to its competition.

“Once workers see other workers having some success through their unions, it increases their willingness to take the risk that it takes to organize in the first place or strike over a contract,” said Susan Schurman, a professor at Rutgers University’s labor and management school.

Schurman herself was on strike earlier this year with the AAUP-AFT union. She credits the strike and the ensuing “extraordinary” contract they got to the willingness of senior, full-time faculty to band together with adjuncts and graduate students. Even though their situations are different, they are intertwined, since universities are increasingly relying on adjuncts, who are paid less and who have less job security, to teach.

More and more, it seems workers are showing up not only for their peers and people at the same company or organization, but also for workers completely unrelated to them, in what people in labor relations call “horizontal solidarity.”

That means members of the Writers Guild showed up to Teamsters rallies, and the Teamsters have refused to make deliveries to the studios. Starbucks workers can be found supporting Amazon workers and vice versa.

Starbucks workers joined striking SAG-AFTRA and Writers Guild of America (WGA) members on their picket lines this summer.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

“This is the first time I will tell you — and I’ve been in this field of labor relations for a very long time — of seeing this kind of horizontal solidarity, unions supporting other unions,” Schurman said. “The unions themselves have increasingly understood, ‘Hey, next time it could be us,’” she added. “Part of it is just understanding that the economy is now much more interconnected.”

And even when they are worlds apart, workers in different industries are finding similarities. AI could impact a variety of jobs, from using the technology to monitor drivers and track movements in warehouses to writing scripts and broadcasting the likenesses of actors on screen indefinitely.

Climate change, too, threatens to make work more miserable for a broad swath of workers, independent of industry. And increasingly, negotiations and strikes are factoring in environmental concerns.

“We’ve documented both last summer and this summer multiple strikes by groups like fast food workers where workers are just spontaneously walking out in both Texas and California because of terrible heat,” said Johnnie Kallas, a PhD candidate and director of Cornell’s Labor Action Tracker. “That’s one example of a new type of activity that may grow in prominence.”

All of these issues are also factoring into broad public support for unions, which is at its highest level since 1965, according to Gallup. Current labor actions at companies and organizations that are household names — and the media coverage they generate — only stand to make workers’ plights and union efforts more widely known.

“People who never heard of unions now know about unions,” Rutgers’ Schurman said. “Everybody knows when Brad Pitt’s on strike.”

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