Don’t call it a comeback: the labor movement has been in a state of steady resurgence and shows no signs of slowing down. Union organizers said this summer of strikes was a “hot labor summer” on national news. As of September 1, 2023, more than 300,000 workers across the country had caused work stoppages, according to the Cornell Labor Action Tracker—more workers than in all of 2022.
Let’s think about the conditions, demands, and strategy animating strikes in 2023.
Two years ago, NPQ and other outlets began reporting that union activity was making headlines for the first time in decades. People living and working in the wake of the economic fallout of the pandemic finally decided that enough was enough—and began demanding better. The flurry of work stoppage activity in the fall of 2021 was named “Striketober,” punning the month when thousands of workers at John Deere, Kellogg’s, Warrior Met Coal, and many more walked off the job.
Since then, the economic forces that made workers start taking serious action have worsened in many ways—but movements for economic justice are growing even stronger in response. Let’s think about the conditions, demands, and strategy animating strikes in 2023.
Conditions: Public Opinion, Prices, Pay
In recent years, public polls often reported that public support for unions is higher than 67 percent. It seems the majority thinks that working people deserve better at their jobs.
In the summer issue of our magazine, Erica Smiley wrote that the post-pandemic years have been something of a “great awakening,” in which “the entire landscape for what is possible changed overnight as workers showed us how to effectively hold global corporations accountable.” Workers today are more cognizant than ever of just how badly they are being exploited—and more confident than ever that they can do something about it.
Several economic conditions have seeded the ground for this new burst in organizing energy. Firstly, there is the simple fact that the divide between the haves and the have-nots has been growing exponentially over the past forty years—but especially in the past few. In addition to CEO pay rising by over 1,000 percent since 1978, the Economic Policy Institute reported that CEOs were paid 399 times as much as the average worker in 2021. On average, a CEO at one of the top firms in the country was paid $27.8 million, while the average full-time worker made around $75,000. During the pandemic, CEO compensation jumped 30.3 percent, while workers only saw a 3.9 percent rise.
Needless to say, the economy is weighted in favor of people who are already making more than enough to survive. On the flip side, these corporate profits have been a major driver of inflation in wealthy countries like the United States in recent years. As wages stagnate for low and middle-wage workers, corporate profits have made things more expensive for people since 2020. Another study shows that the long decade since the Great Recession has consolidated corporate power to the point that when prices were driven up by economic pressures during the pandemic, they were not able to be controlled by federal monetary policy.
As prices rise from everything from groceries to gas…all signs point to an economy that is not working for nobody except the wealthy few.
In the past, inflation has been regulated by rebalancing supply dynamics and raising unemployment. But post-pandemic, the on-the-ground experience of everyday people shows that the causes are not the same as previous periods. Wages are hardly keeping up, and prices are rising anyway. Economists are finally taking stock of the outsized and unprecedented effect that corporate profit measures have had on inflation. The Hill reported that S&P companies have been “inflating consumer prices despite reporting billions in extra earnings and over a trillion dollars in giveaways to wealthy investors.”
Although the federal government has not done nearly enough to regulate the economy in terms of corporate profits, some federal agencies—such as the National Labor Relations Board—have mobilized to lend greater support for workers struggling to reclaim their fair share. Cases—including petitions to unionize and claims of unfair labor practices—filed have risen dramatically in the past few years, and the agency itself has made bold strides to make it easier for workers to unionize without an election and protect them from mandatory meetings by their employers discouraging organizing.
To put it plainly: the contradictions are heightening in this context of “greedflation,” or inflation caused by corporate greed, and organizing activity. As prices rise from everything from groceries to gas, household debt soars to over 17 trillion, and wealth inequality steepens, all signs point to an economy that is working for nobody except the wealthy few. Workers are taking matters into their own hands, building strong organizations, inventing creative strategies to take on powerful companies, and making bold demands for survival.
Demands: Less Work, More Jobs, Enough to Live
On October 4, 2023, 85,000 healthcare employees at Kaiser Permanente walked off the job for three days, kicking off the largest healthcare strike in US history and the first ever at the nonprofit health provider. Nurses, EMTs, and other medical professionals and staff from California, Colorado, Oregon, Virginia, Washington, and Washington D.C., represented by the coalition of eight unions at Kaiser Permanente, went on a three-day strike, demanding better pay, higher staffing, and a higher minimum wage for healthcare workers.
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Not only did the union win all of these demands, it set labor standards that will have a ripple effect across other sectors. In a time of record inequality and layoffs, healthcare employees will see a 21 percent raise, a $23 hourly minimum, workforce development initiatives, and higher staffing.
This last issue has been at a crisis point in the healthcare industry. In 2021, nurses at St. Vincent Hospital went on a historic strike lasting 301 days, mainly over raises and staffing concerns. On the picket line in 2020, nurses explained that they were often working shifts with one nurse to ten patients. The ideal industry standard is one to four.
Staff shortage is a pervasive issue across many sectors, from education to the auto industry. Teachers, assembly-line workers, nurses, and baristas all have similar complaints about the companies that employ them: they don’t pay enough to retain people, and they don’t hire enough people to make workloads feasible. This causes a cycle of constant turnover and understaffing, putting increased strain on people trying to make ends meet.
One way we can understand the four-day workweek demand boldly put forward by the United Auto Workers is as a solution to this problem. “Our members are working 60, 70, even 80 hours a week just to make ends meet,” said UAW President Sean Fain in a Facebook Live address last month. “That’s not living. It’s barely surviving, and it needs to stop.”
By this logic, working 32 hours for 40 hours of pay weekly would mitigate the strain and stress seen across the economy. Not only is the four-day workweek an attractive benefit to retain more people in the workforce, but studies show that it increases job satisfaction, reduces burnout, and has no negative impact on productivity. Fain and other labor leaders have pointed out that in a time of record profits, C-suites have the money to pay people better, let them work less, and hire more to help the work happen.
If past seasons have taught us anything, it’s that strikes spread.
Strategy: Standup Strikes and Cross-Union Solidarity
Two things prevalent in recent strikes is a change in labor tactics and increased solidarity between unions.
Earlier this month, the Writers Guild of America’s East and West voted to approve a contract after 148 days of walking off the job. With help from other unions, including IATSE and the Teamsters, the WGA was able to effectively halt the production of high-profile television shows and films. Across the country, union members in other industries attended each other’s pickets and refused to cross the lines, amplifying the idea that corporate profits, layoffs, and technological threats were affecting workers across the economy.
While many unions are amplifying issues that they have in common to strengthen their campaigns, others are coming up with creative ways to take on multibillion dollar employers. Like other unions, the United Auto Workers have asked for better pay and better working conditions. But during their ongoing strike, the United Auto Workers have been using a “stand up” strike strategy, a callback to the 1930s sit-down strikes in Flint, MI, where autoworkers occupied factories and worked together to shut down plants. Unlike a traditional picket line, these workers stayed in the factory to protest for better wages and working conditions, staving off replacement workers and keeping strikers warm, dry, and in control of their workplaces.
The union, led by newly elected president Shawn Fain and a leadership dedicated to democratic form, has mobilized its 150,000 members to put this new “stand-up” strategy in place. As they did a hundred years ago, the union is keeping employers guessing, selecting locals to “stand up” and go on strike one or many at a time. So far, the tactics have proven to be incredibly successful, keeping the strike fund full and maximizing impact as employers scramble to make contingency plans.
If past seasons have taught us anything, it’s that strikes spread. If SAG-AFTRA can limit the creep of AI on production, if the UAW is able to secure some of its central demands, such as a shorter workweek and raises, then workers elsewhere can take notes back to their own sectors. Already, truck drivers and teachers take a stand for everything from better pay to climate resiliency—and win. Even though economic policy is doing little to relieve working people of everyday struggle, they are deciding for themselves what they need and deserve.
In the current climate of corporate greed and economic insecurity, the undeniable fact is that unions across the country are not only winning strong contracts to help working people thrive, but they are also changing the narrative about why and how to do it. This Striketober and beyond, the long-term struggle for economic justice in the United States will continue—and we should keep looking to organized workers to see how it’s done.