US labor unions are having a moment

Ian Kullgren, Brian Eckhouse and Deena Shanker, Bloomberg News on

Published in Business News

U.S. organized labor is having a moment after decades of erosion in both influence and power, giving workers their best chance in recent memory to claw back lost ground.

In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, unions are finding they suddenly have the upper hand—or at least, more solid footing—when it comes to negotiating wages and benefits, spurring a flurry of new picket lines. Nearly 40 workplaces across the nation have gone on strike since Aug. 1, according to Bloomberg Law’s database of work stoppages, almost double the number during the same period last year.

From Deere & Co.’s factories and Kellogg Co.’s U.S. cereal plants to nurses in Massachusetts and distillery workers in Kentucky, tens of thousands of union workers across a vast swath of industries are either on strike or close to it, leading some to dub this month “Strike-tober.” One of Hollywood’s most powerful unions settled over the weekend to avoid a strike — the first in its 128-year history — that had been set to begin Monday.

“Workers are right to think the ball is in their court,” said Adam Seth Litwin, a professor of industrial and labor relations at Cornell University. “They need to take a really big bite of the apple right now, because whatever they get they’re going to have it in their mouth for a long time.”

The newfound forcefulness of labor unions is in stark contrast to the direction of the last several decades. Private-sector unionization has plummeted for generations as some industries decamped to the largely ununionized American South and a slack labor market made it easier to replace striking workers. Only 10.8% of the U.S. workforce belonged to unions last year, Bureau of Labor Statistics data show. That’s down from a peak of 34.8% in 1954, according to Pew Research Center. Amid threats of automation or offshoring, and companies taking full advantage of the leeway afforded to them by the courts, those dwindling unionized workers made significant concessions in past contract fights, unsure they had a better alternative.

But now employees, trying to reclaim what they gave up before, have been emboldened by a series of related events: soaring company profits, a renewed respect for essential workers and rekindled political will in Washington. Plus there’s the hard truth of today’s labor market: Companies in many industries are finding employees downright impossible to replace. Here are several key factors at play:


Essential Workers Feel Essential

Working through the pandemic has been a transformative experience for many laborers, who garnered public support as “essential workers.” At the same time, many felt the companies they worked for didn’t do what was necessary to keep them safe or reward their sacrifices.

“Essential workers are tired of being thanked one day and then treated as expendable the next day,” Liz Shuler, president of the AFL-CIO, said in a speech Wednesday in Washington. “The headline isn’t that there’s a shortage of people willing to return to work. Instead, it’s a scarcity story. We have a shortage of safe, good-paying, sustainable jobs.”

That’s the feeling at Deere, where assembly employees were categorized as front-line workers to continue operations, creating a sense that the company owes them. Kellogg workers, too, feel like they put themselves at risk in order to keep America’s pantries full during lockdowns.


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