US, strikes make a comeback as dissatisfaction and union support grow
A Havard professor and a Georgetown professor explain why we are seeing a surge of strikes across the US
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Strikes have made a comeback in the U.S. In recent months, Hollywood writers, Staburcks baristas, nurses and auto workers, as well as thousands of other dissatisfied employees, have walked off the job, demanding higher wages and improved benefits and workingUSA conditions. Some strikes have been very successful: the Teamsters union secured approval of most of its demands by merely threatening a strike of the 340,000 members at UPS.
On Wednesday, 75,000 Kaiser Permanente workers walked off the job in multiple states, kicking off a major health care strike.
The strikes match a growing support for unions as the American workforce is increasingly willing to make its voice heard, according to Benjamin Sachs, a Harvard professor and expert in labor law and labor relations, and Joseph McCartin, a Georgetown University professor, and expert on U.S. labor, social, and political history.
Here, the experts delve into the evolving perception of unions in American society and the underlying forces that are propelling workers to demand change.
Why is there a growing movement of U.S. workers going on strike? What’s happening?
Professor McCartin: I think it’s the coming together of long-range and short-range circumstances. In terms of the short-range, a lot of it is the after effects of the COVID pandemic, when many workers saw their employers making huge profits, but that didn’t translate to them too. The pandemic overall led people to reevaluate the relationship to their job and growing dissatisfaction started to emerge. In the past year in the U.S. we’ve also had significant inflation, so workers have felt that their buying power has diminished. These are short-term factors that are spurring workers into action.
Then there’s a longer term trend that is responsible for a shift in opinion over time about the labor movement in the U.S. In recent years, the public support for unions has grown and it hasn’t been as strong as it is now since the mid 60s. Part of what accounts for that is a long term trend that dates back at least to the Great Recession in the U.S., in 2008 and 2009, where there was growing inequality in this country. There was austerity for a lot of public sector and even private sector workers, and there was also the beginning of the breakdown of what could be called the neoliberal consensus. The era defined by figures like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher started to break apart in the aftermath of the Great Recession. That breakdown in a way has been a breakdown of faith that the free market left to itself is going to take care of people.
Professor Sachs: I have never seen anything like this in my lifetime. I find it inspiring: this is really an amazing moment in U.S. industrial relations history. We’re seeing new unions forming in businesses that the American observers thought would never unionize — Amazon, Starbucks, Trader Joe’s and Apple. We’re seeing organizing among young people too — graduate students, college workers, young doctors are organizing unions in incredible numbers.
How do people see unions now?
Professor McCartin: They see them as more necessary and hope they’ll be more powerful. More workers are feeling that inequity and inequality has really defined their relationship to their job. They would like to have unions even in settings where they don’t, and many hope unions could help them with the issues that they face on the job, but that doesn’t mean they get to be in a union because it’s so easy for employers to resist, like Starbucks or Amazon.
Professor Sachs: What we’re seeing is the more victories that unions win, the more powerful they will become in the eyes of their members and in the eyes of the public. And we are in fact seeing union victories: the UPS contract is amazing; the writers contract is groundbreaking.
What leverage do employees have to ask for higher wages?
Professor McCartin: A big source of leverage is that there are more job openings than there are unemployed job seekers.This is also a short term factor that is driving the current strikes, because when there are more openings than there are workers searching for jobs, workers have an advantage. They now feel more empowerment in the handling of their relationship to their job than they’ve felt in a generation.
Professor Sachs: The tight labor market explains increased leverage and it may explain in part why we’re seeing so many strikes and workers feeling more confident in going out on strike. But the main leverage that workers have when they have a union is the ability to stop working and to shut down production or service delivery, whatever it is. That’s what we’re seeing: we’re seeing the workers exercising the strike power to insist on higher wages and they’re winning them.
But workers are going on strike not only to get higher wages, e.g. health care workers are complaining of staff shortages that result in a below-standard level of care.
Professor McCartin: Correct. An important part of many of the recent strikes is that they have not only been about the worker issues, but often workers fighting to protect the institutions that they’re in, like health care, to improve those institutions, and to make them function better. In the US, we’ve had a phenomenon in recent years of strikes under the theme of what’s called “bargaining for the common good” and in that approach, workers have been fighting for improvements for themselves but also the improvement of their institutions. We’ve seen that a lot in the teacher strikes of recent years.
How has labor leadership changed over the past years?
Professor McCartin: There’s been a generational shift. The previous generation has presided over the decline of the movement and adopted a defensive and cautious stance toward how to deal either with their employers or politically. That generation trusted that their voice could be heard within a kind of centrist consensus, while the current generation that’s coming to power realizes that times have changed and that they will have to be more outspoken and more willing to engage in confrontation and strikes.
Professor Sachs: There’s certainly been a changing of the guard at some of the major unions and a shift towards less conciliatory union leadership – more willing to make strong demands and insist upon them and to take advantage of this moment where there’s a tight labor market. Part of what we’re seeing is also a generational shift. My students are very interested in labor law and labor unions for the first time in decades. The kinds of things that students are willing to argue and fight for is indicative of where the future of the labor movement may be and what I’m seeing in the classroom is an increased insistence on equity, equality, on fair treatment, and on a fairly profound redistribution of wealth from capital to labor.
How did Covid cast a spotlight on the vast disparities among America’s workforce? What effect did it have on unions’ support?
Professor McCartin: During the pandemic, workers who had more or less toiled in anonymity before were lifted up in the public and referred to as essential workers. They were praised, but not rewarded materially for their sacrifice. They experienced the phenomenon of being pointed to and thanked for their work but not paid more, while their employers were making huge profits. This really impacted people and made them angry. That translated into higher support for unions: as workers experienced this inequity, unions were a natural thing that they turned their attention to. In the United States, there is a constant public celebration of individualism, but during the pandemic, people experienced a greater sense of collectivity.
Professor Sachs: During the pandemic, workers sacrificed a lot, they put a lot of risk to keep the economy moving, and haven’t seen the rewards for that. They haven’t gotten a fair return for that sacrifice and that’s made particularly salient when their companies are making record profits and the CEOs are making record salaries. A lot of the wage demands are about workers just asking for a fair share of the sacrifices they’ve made and the profits that they’re generating.
What was the most effective strike recently?
Professor McCartin: The one that was most effective was one where the strike didn’t actually happen: that was with Teamsters in their effort with the United Parcel Service. One important thing that Teamsters did is they made it very clear to UPS that if they didn’t meet the union’s demands, they were going to shut down. It was clear that they were ready to strike and that they had done the preparations, so they got a really good deal from UPS.
Professor Sachs: It’s impossible to pick one. Strikes often happen in waves and success feeds success. I do think we may be entering into a period of a virtuous cycle: wins fueling more wins fueling more wins. The UPS drivers got a tremendous deal. The writers got a groundbreaking contract. I predict that the UAW will win enormous gains from their strike too.
Despite the growing number of strikes, the U.S. is still seeing 70% fewer strikes than in the 70s, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Why is that?
Professor McCartin: It’s a very important point to make: while there have been big strikes recently and currently, and while there have been more strikes this year than in recent years, historically it’s not that much. There has been a dramatic decline in strikes in the U.S. from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. It came from many factors. One was increased business opposition to unions and in the U.S. that dramatically grew in the ‘70s in the beginning of that period of the growth of the neoliberal consensus era of Reagan and Thatcher. Strike almost disappeared as a weapon of workers until recent years. With the Chicago strike of teachers in 2012 there has been a gradual rediscovery of the strength by unions and a willingness to use it. That’s an important shift.
There has been a lot of discussion around regulating artificial intelligence. What role are unions playing in this?
Professor Sachs: The writers strike is so important in that they address something that is coming for all of us, which is technological disruption. The writers have said loud and clear: “You’re going to do technological change with us, not to us.” The role that unions can play is to give workers a voice in how artificial intelligence is deployed and to bargain in one way or another with management over the use and deployment of artificial intelligence.
Professor McCartin: The emergence of AI has been sudden and I think it’s really taken people by surprise how fast it’s emerged. Workers are feeling technology to be potentially threatening. So technology is one of the things I think that’s really leading workers to think that we need more protection.Some unions have started to establish some boundaries in control and that’s important.