During the previous twelve months, there have been a fair number of events and observations pertinent to organized labor, some of which have set the stage for the 2023 strikes. What were they?
Before Joe Biden joined the United Auto Workers picket line, views on his attitude about unions were often different, as “Some Rail Workers, Seeking Sick Days, Say Biden Betrayed Them” (Noam Scheiber, The New York Times, November 30th). Then, the president “urged Congress to impose a labor agreement that (one) union had voted down,” which led to a possible railroad strike, which he said “would threaten hundreds of thousands of jobs and… cost the economy more than $2 billion per day,” not materializing. The main area of controversy was paid time off for illness or medical appointments.
Moving to a large, familiar company, which has had labor organizing efforts both successful and unsuccessful, was “At Starbucks, Schultz Is Back to Fight a Union” (Noam Scheiber and Julie Creswell, The New York Times, December 11th). The former and incoming CEO named in the title gave “new benefits and wage increases but withheld them from employees in the union, which represents about 2 percent of the company’s U.S. work force of more than 250,000,” and said “no” to someone asking him “if he could ever imagine embracing the union.”
Times have changed significantly since December 17th, when The Economist published “Picket lines and poké,” subtitled “Unions are gentrifying. Can that reverse their decline?” Its main idea was that “unions used to be associated with brawny middle-aged men standing outside factories” but as of article time “the most active trade unions represent workers who have degrees and wear white collars,” 46% of whom had four-year degrees. That may have been the main story of organized labor over the previous ten years, but it has since shifted toward protecting employees, especially lower-paid ones, from problems managements will not solve. Moving in that direction, “Unions won more elections in 2022 than they have in nearly 20 years” (Vox.com, December 25th), with 641, or 80% more than in 2021. As well, “unions are winning more than three-quarters of their elections,” “three times as many US workers went on strike in 2022 as in 2021,” and “the share of Americans who approve of unions is at its highest level since 1965.” In addition, “US labor strikes surged 52% in 2022, showing rise in ‘worker activism’: study” (Brock Dumas and Bradford Betz, Fox Business, February 21st).
Just into this year we saw as “Amazon Loses Bid to Overturn Union Victory at Staten Island Warehouse” (Noam Scheiber and Karen Weise, The New York Times, January 11th). That decision was made by “a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board,” who “found that there was a lack of evidence to support Amazon’s claim of election improprieties.”
The conflict at the coffee-serving company continued, as “A barista fought to unionize her Starbucks. Now she’s out of a job” (Greg Jaffe, The Washington Post, June 18th). This article, which made the top of the Sunday front page, related how someone, who had worked there “for nearly eight years,” as she “was one of 49 baristas from across Buffalo who sent a letter to the company’s chief executive in August 2021 informing him that they were seeking to form a union,” was fired. As of the publication date, there were “about 320 unionized Starbucks stores in the United States,” but the effort at this one failed.
Finally, are we in “Striking times” (The Economist, September 16th)? The United Auto Workers stoppage, started one day before this publication date, was enlarged two weeks later (U.A.W. Expands Strikes at Ford and G.M.”, Neal E. Boudette, The New York Times, September 29th), and is still in progress, with companies laying off workers and no reports of successful negotiations. There will be more. Whether justified or not, beyond any doubt the labor situation is evolving more quickly than it has for decades. In a year we may know much more, but for now, we don’t.