Organized Labor’s Wins in 2023 May Spur More Strikes in 2024

Organized Labor’s Wins in 2023 May Spur More Strikes in 2024
Organized Labor’s Wins in 2023 May Spur More Strikes in 2024

Organized Labor’s Wins in 2023 May Spur More Strikes in 2024, KEY TAKEAWAYS

Overview of Labor Activity in 2023

The most workdays were lost to strikes this year since 2000.

More major labor contracts are set to expire in 2024, setting the stage for further work stoppages.

Challenges and Gains

While unions made big gains in 2023, they represent just 6% of the private sector workforce and face significant headwinds.

Organized labor had its most active year in two decades, with big wins by auto workers, Teamsters, and screen actors likely to inspire unionized workers to continue holding management’s feet to the fire in 2024.

Prospects for 2024

“I suspect the success of the UAW, Teamsters, etc. will lead to continued activism and the prospect of disputes if the labor market stays strong,” Harvard University labor economist Lawrence F. Katz said in an email.

Next year’s calendar of major contract expirations includes communications workers at AT&T (T) in April, Hollywood crew members in July, and dockworkers and Boeing (BA) machinists in September. Already there’s speculation that strikes next autumn could affect the presidential election.

Impact and Challenges

While work stoppages may inconvenience some consumers and disrupt operations at some companies, the broader impact is likely to be minimal. Just 6% of the private sector workforce is organized, and the overall unionization rate is the lowest since records began in 1983, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Turning Tables in Favor of Unions

Nonetheless, the 2023 labor contracts suggest the tables may have turned in favor of unionized workers after decades of organizing failures and declining influence.

Six weeks of strikes against General Motors (GM), Ford (F), and Stellantis (STLA) yielded 4½-year accords that will give assembly plant workers immediate raises of 11% and will result in wage increases of 33% by 2028.

Notable Wins

The UAW forced automakers to ditch many of the multiple tiers of wages that the union had to accept in previous rounds of concessions to help bail out the industry. The companies also agreed in principle to bring new electric-vehicle battery plants into the national contract, giving the UAW an opportunity to organize them.

Last summer, delivery giant United Parcel Service (UPS) averted a strike by 330,000 workers represented by the Teamsters Union. The contract includes significant pay increases over the next five years, the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, an end to forced overtime on drivers’ days off, elimination of a two-tier wage system and safety improvements, including air conditioning on more trucks.

Public Support and Influencing Factors

Hollywood writers, healthcare workers, Las Vegas culinary workers, and Detroit casino employees also scored gains. Gallup polls found that more than two-thirds of Americans support organized labor in disputes with management and that a rising number expect unions to gather more clout.

“What accounts for this burst of labor activism, remarkable run of labor victories and public support of unions?” asked former Labor Secretary Robert Reich in a Nov. 1 essay in The Guardian. “Partly, I think, it’s the harsh inequalities exposed by the pandemic,” which “dramatically revealed how much easier it is for rich Americans to survive than everyone else, and how dependent all of us are on average workers simply doing their jobs.”

Factors Driving Labor Activism

In addition, he wrote, the tight post-pandemic labor market gave workers more leverage while widening inequality and rising inflation stiffened their resolve.

This year was the biggest for strikes since the beginning of the century. Through October, the number of workdays lost in 26 strikes topped 15 million, the most since 40 strikes in 2000 cost employers more than 20 million workdays.

Historical Context

But those totals are relatively small compared with a half-century ago. Work stoppages have been on a steep downward trend since 1970 when another UAW strike against GM drove the number of lost workdays to 52.8 million and whacked fourth-quarter GDP. The record year was 1959 when 245 strikes resulted in 60.9 million lost workdays.

Why are there so many fewer big labor actions these days? It’s largely because of dramatic changes in the economy, along with management strategies that discourage union activity. Outsourcing, offshoring, and the rise of the gig economy have weakened unions.

Future Challenges

Labor Still Faces Headwinds. “I don't know how resilient the new surge of organizing and strike activity will be to an economic downturn when one next occurs,” Harvard’s Katz cautioned.

Even absent a recession, organized labor still faces significant headwinds. Most American employers are still staunchly anti-union, and labor’s recent gains may be just “drops in the bucket of the overall American labor market and may or may not be harbingers of a resurgent unionism,” Columbia University labor economist Suresh Naidu wrote last year in the Journal of Economic Perspectives.

Long-term Outlook

“In the short run, a lot depends on both politics and the tightness of the economy,” Naidu said in an email. “In the long run, a lot depends on whether workers, particularly non-college workers, and the labor movement can come together to overcome the polarization of American politics.”