Why Workers Are Turning to New Strikes to Pressure Companies This Year

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Business / Thursday, 02 November 2023 14:25

Fifty years ago, in the early 1970s, Joe Uline worked as a construction laborer in Pennsylvania, building a bridge across the Susquehanna River.

The work was dangerous: leaks in some of the structures in the river put workers at risk of drowning. But Uline's boss ignored these concerns.

"He wouldn't let us stop. He just wanted us to pump the water out and keep working," Uline said. So Uline and a couple of hundred of his colleagues took matters into their own hands: they declared a three-day strike.

The strike was a success. As a result, the construction workers got a job safety representative.

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Workers' strikes were a common phenomenon after World War II and up until the 1970s. But the early 1980s marked an era of crackdowns on striking workers, leading to a sharp decline in strike activity - the consequences of which workers still feel today.

However, this year marked a turning point. According to preliminary data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 22 major strikes in 2023, defined as strikes involving at least 1,000 workers, and 17 of these occurred in the private sector, making it the highest number of major strikes in the private sector since 2011.

A Hot Labor Summer for Workers Worldwide Inequality exacerbated by the pandemic, coupled with inflation, has led to increased unrest among workers. Many have walked off the job demanding higher pay and benefits, as many unions negotiate their first contracts since the pandemic began.

In the lead-up to the so-called "hot labor summer," workers in various sectors are still striking, from autoworkers at the Detroit Three to hotel employees and Hollywood actors in Los Angeles.

Labor experts say that the high-profile strikes in the private sector this year - many of which have yielded tangible benefits for unions - could be another pivotal moment in the U.S. labor movement.

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The Cost Is High for Workers Of course, strikes can be costly for workers, who often don't get paid when they're off the job. While the United Auto Workers (UAW) pays $500 per week to striking union members, not every union does so.

UAW President Sean Feeney, who became the face of the historic autoworkers' strike, acknowledged that strikes are not ideal. They disrupt the economy and workers' pay, but often, it's the most powerful tool they have.

"We don't want to strike here," Feeney recently said. "We will do everything we can to get this."

Among those who quit their jobs this year were more than 75,000 Kaiser Permanente healthcare workers from coast to coast. In early October, they declared a three-day strike after their unions failed to reach an agreement with Kaiser management on a new contract.

"It seems like this non-profit organization could share some of its profits with the people who actually do the work," said Brinda Christian, a Kaiser pharmacist who picketed in Virginia.

Kaiser's unions reached an agreement just a week after the strike, securing a 21% wage increase over the contract term.

"A Voice and a Seat at the Table" "This agreement demonstrates that when workers have a right to a voice and a seat at the bargaining table, collective bargaining works," said Acting U.S. Secretary of Labor Julie Su at a press conference. "It may not always look pretty, but unions have built the middle class throughout our country's history."

Other unions have also used strikes as leverage to compel their employers to offer more generous compensation and other benefits. The ongoing United Auto Workers strike against the Big Three automakers prompted General Motors to include electric vehicle battery workers in the next contract - leading to a tentative agreement with Ford that includes a wage increase of approximately 25% and enhanced job security guarantees.