The State of Labor in The United States

2023 has proven to be another pivotal year for labor in the United States, with major actions by SAG-AFTRA, WAG, UPS, and UAW changing the landscape of the labor movement in the United States. People have dubbed last summer “Hot Labor Summer” due to the number of strikes, and there seems to be somewhat of a resurgence in union activity. And as these organizations have fought for fair contracts their actions have become increasingly militant, marking a shift from the past few decades which saw a hesitancy to strike. 

As labor tactics have changed, so has the public opinion. A Gallup poll taken in August found that 67% of Americans approve of unions, up from a dismal 48% in 2009. Strikes have likewise increased: A study from Cornell University found that strikes were up 52% in 2022, indicating the general dissatisfaction of workers across a variety of industries. Additionally, the language that union presidents have adopted has become more focused on labor organizing as a class struggle. 

Take United Auto Workers president Shawn Fain, who recently wore a shirt during a press conference that read “EAT THE RICH.” When discussing the need to strike, Fain told auto workers that “I know that we’re on the right side in this battle, it’s a battle of the working class against the rich, the haves versus the have-nots, the billionaire class versus everybody else.”

These words, along with the new militancy in the labor movement, signal a shift from corporate campaigns and community coalitions that emerged after the late 1980s and early 2000s. In what labor lawyer Joe Burns called “labor liberalism,” strikes tended to be shorter and for publicity, and moved away from the rank and file method that most major unions have adopted. Now, we are seeing strikes that bring entire industries to a standstill. 

Some of the more aggressive tactics that major unions have adopted include voting down tentative agreements, making high wage demands, and demanding the end to two-tier schemes, (where one worker group receives lower hourly compensation even if they have the same job, for example, if they’re part time). Whereas in the last decades, strikes were largely a symbolic tool, now unions are using them tactically. This is effective, according to Burns, who in an interview with the progressive publication Jacobin, said that “to revive the labor movement, we have to look back to the proven formula, which is class struggle unionism.”

“Class struggle unionism” paid off for the UPS Teamsters earlier this year, when after threatening to strike they reached a historic deal, which ended with increased wages and eliminated the two tier wage system. Had it gone through, the strike would have been the biggest strike against a single employer in United States history, and caused a major disruption to the supply-chain. 

The same is also true for the Writers Guild of America, which recently ended its 148 day long strike last month. The writers got virtually everything they asked for in their contract: wage increases, pension increases, health funds, better residuals, and fairer terms for the size of writer’s rooms and length of employment. Perhaps even more significantly, it lays out guidelines that restrict companies from using AI to reduce or fully eliminate writers.

For over half of the summer, WGA and SAG-AFTRA (the actors union) were striking together, for the first time since 1960. Though the writer’s strike has since ended, actors are still on strike with no end in sight, bringing Hollywood to a standstill. Heading SAG-AFTRA as president is Fran Drescher, star of 90s hit The Nanny turned labor activist. Like Shawn Fain, Drescher’s SAG-AFTRA presidency has been marked by her fiery speeches against millionaire studio executives. “What happens here is important because what’s happening to us is happening across all fields of labor by means of when employers make Wall Street and greed their priority and they forget about the essential contributors that makes the machine run,” Drescher said in her announcement that SAG-AFTRA would formally strike back in July. As of publication, SAG-AFTRA continues to strike, with negotiations continuing through next week. 

UAW (United Auto Workers) also went on strike last month, against the car manufacturing companies Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis. For the first time in American history, a sitting United States president visited a picket line when Joe Biden visited striking auto workers in Michigan, giving the union massive publicity. As of last Wednesday (October 25th), UAW reached a tentative agreement with Ford, which employs 56,000 of its members. The agreement is considered to be a major win, with providing a 25% wage hike over the 4-1/2-year contract, starting with an initial increase of 11%, and an elimination of the two-tier system in some Ford operations. General Motors and Stellantis workers remain on strike, but are engaging in talks to reach a deal that is expected to match Ford’s. Fain called the deal a “major victory.”

Since the 1980s, it was typical for only the national union president to know what was going on, and negotiations on contracts took place behind closed doors. What Fain is doing is what Burns calls “a fundamentally different kind of bargaining.” Fain “gets into office and shakes hands with the members at the plants, puts forward a list of members’ demands, and tells the automakers that either they’re going to have a deal or the workers go out on strike.” 

These events are unprecedented in American history, and demonstrably effective, with benefits across every industry. To provide another example, Kaiser-Permanente workers strike from October 4-6th, the largest healthcare worker strike in history, winning a 21% wage increase over four years. Despite all these gains, the labor movement in the United States is still dying. In 1983, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics started gathering data, 20% of Americans were in unions. This year, the figure was 10%. The decline started well before that, with a range of theories for why it happened. Part of the reason has to do with politics, left-leaning countries have stronger union membership. The other theory is that unions tend to expand their forces less quickly, due to increases in wages, making them cost more. A 2001 paper by Henry Farber and Bruce estimated that unions would have to increase their organizing rate sixfold just to keep the US membership rate constant. Still, it seems clear that major unions’ new militant strategy has led to historic wins—what remains to be seen is if the labor movement will be able to harness that momentum to truly create a resurgence in the United States.