‘It’s time’: Worker empowerment fuels high rates of labor action

FILE - United Auto Workers members walk in the Labor Day parade in Detroit, Sept. 2, 2019. The United Auto Workers union says it has filed unfair labor practice complaints against Stellantis and General Motors for failing to make counteroffers to the union's economic demands. Ford was the only company of the Detroit Three automakers to make such an offer, but it rejected most of the union's proposals, President Shawn Fain told workers Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023, in a Facebook Live meeting. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File)

DETROIT — Low unemployment, high rates of inflation and lingering impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have contributed to a boom in union and strike activity in the past couple of years. And after a summer full of strikes, this fall could be no different.

More than 100 strikes took place from June through August across the United States, according to the Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relation’s labor action tracker — nearly as many as last year’s 116 and significantly more than 2021’s 64 in that same time period.


Workers feel empowered, according to experts. Confidence in knowing they can get a job elsewhere in the event of a strike, the strain on pocketbooks from increasing prices, major profits in the private sector, signs of approval from the Biden administration and a greater focus on work-life balance are driving a surge in actions and organizing by unions.

Those same conditions are fueling worker solidarity and a willingness to put up a fight if it comes to it in the ongoing United Auto Workers negotiations with the Detroit Three automakers. The union is demanding 46% wage increases over four years, cost-of-living adjustments, the elimination of wage tiers, a 32-hour work week paid like 40 hours, and pension and retiree health care benefits for all. The three contracts expire Sept. 14.

Traditionally around Labor Day during contract negotiations, the union selects a lead company that is expected to set the pattern and at which it potentially could strike. It doesn’t have to select a lead, however, and the messaging from UAW President Shawn Fain has been anything but traditional. Last week, he announced the union had filed unfair labor practice charges against General Motors Co. and Stellantis, and trashed in a Facebook livestream a counterproposal from Ford Motor Co. promising 15% combined wage increases and lump sums bonuses over the contract’s life.

“There’s never been as much energy around the labor movement as we’ve seen,” Fain said during a recent practice picket in Detroit. COVID “made people reflect about what’s important in life, and what’s important in life, it’s not working in a factory and leaving the factory seven days a week and spending the majority of your time slaving away at work. It’s spending time with your family, spending time with your kids. … We’re bargaining this for the working class.”

A contract campaign similar to one used by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters has kept employers on their toes. Unions are savvier than ever with their messaging and social media, said Art Wheaton, an automotive industry specialist at Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations School. Organizing at universities and in retail like at Starbucks Corp. has reenergized the movement with younger voices.

The Writers Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists are on strike over issues around the use of artificial intelligence in their fields and compensation, especially in light of media streaming.

Recent data from analytics firm Gallup Inc. shows 67% of Americans approve of labor unions. Although that’s down from 71% a year ago, it marks the fifth straight year the survey indicates support exceeding the long-term average of 62%. For autoworkers, support sits at 75%.

As of July, 61% of Americans report living paycheck to paycheck, according to financial services firm LendingClub Corp. Consumer prices in July increased 3.3% from a year earlier, the U.S. Commerce Department said last week.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


By participating in online discussions you acknowledge that you have agreed to the Star-Advertiser's TERMS OF SERVICE. An insightful discussion of ideas and viewpoints is encouraged, but comments must be civil and in good taste, with no personal attacks. If your comments are inappropriate, you may be banned from posting. To report comments that you believe do not follow our guidelines, email hawaiiwarriorworld@staradvertiser.com.