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Will the Strike Wave of 2023 Continue?

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Stephen Greenhouse considers the supposed “Hot Labor Summer” (ok, it’s an effective hashtag even if I roll my eyes a bit) and what it means.

Corporations are not happy about the increased labor militancy. The Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers said it “offered historic pay and residual increases”, adding that the actors’ union, by striking, “has regrettably chosen a path that will lead to financial hardship for countless thousands of people who depend on the industry”.

Eager to avert a Teamsters strike, UPS agreed to significantly increase wages for full- and part-time workers. The wage gains are double the increases from the union’s previous five-year contract and include a 48% pay raise for part-timers over the life of the contract.

“We’ve changed the game, battling it out day and night to make sure our members won an agreement that pays strong wages, rewards their labor and doesn’t require a single concession,” O’Brien said. He added that “this contract … raises the bar for all workers”.

The Teamsters win is likely to embolden the UAW as that union considers a strike, too. “Without a credible strike threat, the Teamsters could not have gotten this much,” said Joseph McCartin, a labor historian at Georgetown University, “In recent memory, we haven’t had three such large labor situations, one following the other, each of which has national implications and each of which could provide momentum for the other. A big strike that moves the needle for workers – we haven’t seen that in a long while at the national level.”

This summer’s strikes come as public approval of unions is at its highest since 1965, and some labor experts say the strike wave could increase support for labor organizing, even though strikes often inconvenience the public.

When these actors go on strike, it has a huge impact way beyond their numbers; everyone knows who these people are,” said Lichtenstein. “It’s extraordinarily important when a star like Harrison Ford – 3 or 4 billion people know who he is – says I’m for unions. I back the strike.”

He noted that when 185,000 Teamsters walked out at UPS for 15 days in 1997, “that was a very popular strike. Everyone knows their UPS driver.” He argued that strikes by well-liked UPS drivers and Hollywood celebrities could boost support for labor. Indeed, Lichtenstein said that if the Teamsters and UAW are very successful in their contract negotiations, whether with or without a strike, that could help President Biden and other Democrats in 2024, especially in midwest states, where the UAW is strongest.

More militant union leadership is another catalyst for strikes. Over the past two years, insurgent candidates won the presidency of the UAW and Teamsters, having promised a more confrontational approach in bargaining and a greater willingness to strike.

Speaking about the UAW president, Shawn Fain, Michigan State’s Tapia said: “He seems to be gearing up the workers to strike. He has said the workers’ true enemy is multibillion-dollar corporations that refuse to give union members their fair share. The Teamsters and UAW leaders have talked about the significance of strikes not just for their members, but for workers across the whole country.”

In recent months, unions have shown significantly increased energy both in striking and in organizing, for instance at Starbucks. “What these two phenomena make clear is the importance of collective action,” McCartin said. “Historically, to move the needle for workers, they need to engage in collective action.”

Well, we will see. Actors bring a lot of cultural heft to labor, especially when they are talking in terms of class, which they haven’t always done. The Teamsters bringing UPS to its knees before facing a strike certainly is a positive outcome. We will see what a newly revived UAW does, other than being pissed at Joe Biden. But when reporters ask me about this kind of thing, what I say is that strikes beget strikes. Labor action begets labor action. In other words, it’s a lot easier–both for unions themselves and for rank-and-file workers–to engage in labor actions up to and including strikes when they see others doing the same thing and winning. It doesn’t always lead to much. The Starbucks campaign has completely stalled out, for example. But that happens, especially in service industries where workers aren’t really committed to the job. It’s a different thing for UPS drivers, teachers, academics, and actors. But to rebuild the American labor movement, organizing service work is the ticket. Can that ticket be punched in our contemporary circumstances. That’s the real question going forward.

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