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Workers unite as American unions make a comeback


2023 and the ‘summer of strikes’

“Bettie, we’re not going to let the bastards get away with it.”

That was an old United Auto Workers Local 887 leadman following a series of layoffs at Rockwell International in Downey. That summer in 1977, President Jimmy Carter canceled Rockwell’s contract with the Air Force for the B-1 Bomber. In turn, the aeronautics giant opted to lay off hundreds of workers, the majority of which had been with the firm for 20+ years. 

There was more to the story. A few years earlier, Rockwell International landed a spectacular contract that would ultimately change the course of the space race once the Apollo project was completed. The plan was to lay off workers and rehire them at half the salary and also bring in new personnel. Local 887 leaders were incensed at the proposal and threatened a full strike at the plant and vowed to go public with Rockwell’s double cross.

Taking on the ‘Big Three’

Today, the United Auto Workers are waging labor actions again, this time with the “Big Three” auto manufacturers General Motors, Ford and Stellantis (formerly Chrysler). This strike and many others are a sampling of the “summer of strikes” that has reinvigorated American unions after 40 years of derision and weakening of the foundation of America’s middle class. 

From Hollywood writers and actors, nurses, factory workers, and fast food personnel, an estimated 453,000 workers have gone on strike nationwide. In September, many labor groups launched almost 400 strikes across the United States, about the same amount (409) recorded last year, according to a Cornell University Institute of Labor Relations database. Stagnant wages–despite record corporate profits following the pandemic–were and are the primary reasons. Labor has become more aggressive because of decades of wage earners not being able to keep up with rising inflation while the richest Americans expanded their wealth to unprecedented levels. 

Between 1979 and 2022, the inflation-adjusted annual wages of the top 1% of workers rose by 145%, while the average wages of the bottom 90% increased by only 16%—about a tenth as fast, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Several factors have contributed to these trends, including deregulation, the decline of unions and little change in the federal minimum wage.

Stagnant wages primary reason

The auto workers, for instance, are taking aim at CEO compensation at the “Big Three,” each of which was bailed out by taxpayers at the beginning of the Great Recession of 2008. These CEOs have seen their salaries grow by more than 40% since 2019. Workers also believe they have more bargaining power due to a tight labor market and the strongest public support for unions in decades.

More than 75,000 healthcare workers walked off the job two weeks ago at Kaiser Permanente, the nation’s largest nonprofit healthcare organization. This time, the three-day strike (intended to be a warning shot for a protracted walkoff in November) was driven in part for not only higher pay but for increased staffing, the result of which has left employees burned out. The Kaiser workers struggled through the pandemic and were overloaded with patients, while their wages remained flat and insufficient staffing persisted. Mirroring the common cause among America’s striking workers, higher prices from the supermarket to the gas station have weighed heavily on worker paychecks. Real average hourly earnings fell 2% over the last two years, according to the Labor Department. Other top concerns include retirement benefits, healthcare at home and health and safety on the job.

“There’s a generational change taking place in the labor movement and its thinking,” said Joseph McCartin, a labor historian at Georgetown University. “We’re living through a strong labor market and economy, and workers and unions feel more leverage when economic forces are blowing in the direction they have been.”

Decline in union membership

Gallup conducted a poll last summer which revealed that approval of labor unions is at its highest point since 1965. The majority of the public sees unions as key to improving pay and working conditions. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has said unionized workers earn an average of 10.2% more in wages than non-unionized peers. But despite the growing number of strikes, America still sees 70% fewer strikes now compared to the early 1970s, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

Union membership declined over the past three decades as some states placed barriers through so-called “right-to-work” laws that allow workers to opt out of paying fees to a union at their workplace–even if they benefit from union bargaining agreements. And, of course, some companies have presented fierce opposition to unions and any plans to organize.

A watershed moment took place during the decline of unions when 13,000 members of the federal air traffic controllers union walked off the job in 1981. They were subsequently fired by President Ronald Reagan. That confrontation had a chilling effect on unions.

“Coming out of the Reagan era, union leaders were in retreat and looking to get along with management,” McCartin said. “Companies learned how to use strikes to weaken unions and they became less common. Those years were particularly damaging to collective bargaining and union organizing itself.”

Different workers make connections

This year also happens to be one in which a number of major union contracts are up for negotiations. 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 working conditions, rather than defending against concessions. 

The present struggles–all happening at the same time, in different industries involving different groups of workers–are making connections between their endeavors. By mid year, the nation had witnessed 177 work stoppages. Bloomberg Law reports that, before last year when there were 316 strikes, the last time the number of work stoppages was that high was in 2007–and that was for a full year. While this level of labor action is nowhere near what America had in decades prior to the 1990s, experts contend that the recent uptick is unique and notable as part of a resurgent labor movement.

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

The ‘ripple effect’

Labor activity also feeds off other labor activity (e.g. the Writers Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild strikes). 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 new UPS contract will likely spell higher wages even for non-union FedEx workers in a tight hiring market.

“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. “Even though their situations are different, they are intertwined. Workers are showing (organizing) 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.’”

‘Horizontal solidarity’

While today’s labor movement is a far cry from the days of George Meany and the AFL-CIO, workers are feeling increasingly confident that their demands will be met and that their cries will resonate with the famous “World’s Highest Standard of Living” photo captured in a 1937 issue in Life Magazine–ironically published during the depths of the Great Depression.

And what became of “Bettie,” the woman with the unexpected pink slip? About a month after her union representative called expressing Local 887s disappointment with Rockwell, she returned to her shift—at a significantly higher labor grade—and for the next 12 years worked on the firm’s “spectacular contract” in beaming:

“Son, we’re working on a project that will blast off like a rocket, orbit the Earth like a spaceship, and return home like an airplane.”

You can see one of the finished products—admittedly several years from now—in its full glory at the Samuel Oschin Pavilion in Exposition Park.

Tags: local, WGA, Rockwell International, Teamsters, UPS, Kaiser Permanente