Tight job market rebalances power between US business and labor

Tight job market rebalances power between US business and labor

A lengthy strike by Hollywood actors is among the labor unrest that has hit the US economy this year
A lengthy strike by Hollywood actors is among the labor unrest that has hit the US economy this year. Photo: Frederic J. BROWN / AFP
Source: AFP

The US economy is contending with a wave of union activism unseen in decades as organized labor seizes a rare opportunity to play hardball in a tight employment market.

Sectors experiencing unrest include automobiles, health care, restaurants, defense, airlines, technology and the performing arts.

In some cases, employees have threatened to walk out, but didn't actually strike.

"Workers haven't had much leverage for decades, and certainly not in the aftermath of the 2008-2008 recession," said Susan Schurman, professor of labor relations at Rutgers University.

Schurman considers the current dynamic the most advantageous for unions since the 1930s, a rupture from a long period in which employers had the upper hand.

"Wages have been stagnant for decades," Schurman said. "The pandemic changed all that," with the low unemployment bolstering worker leverage.

Read also

Markets rise on tech bounce hope, inflation in focus

Such a backdrop has given momentum to organizing campaigns at more companies, although establishing a union shop remains difficult.

In some cases such as Starbucks and Amazon, workers have voted in favor of representation, but struggled to seal a contract with the employer.

The activism can feed on itself as workers in different sectors observe each other fighting for more, sometime spurring concessions from employers who are trying to stay union-free, said Schurman.

This can mean higher wages, better working conditions, increased job security or other conditions.


Higher consumer prices have been another catalyst for workers, adding credibility to workers claims that they need higher pay just to break even.

Data released this week showed a 3.7 percent increase over September 2022, down from the 9.1 percent surge in June 2022.

The Federal Reserve has raised interest rates 11 times since March 2022 in an effort to return inflation to a two percent target.

Read also

US economy grows at fastest rate in nearly two years

In August the United States lost 4.1 million days of work due to strikes, the highest level in 23 years, according to the Labor Department.

One of the most prominent strikes has been the United Auto Workers' unprecedented stoppage of Detroit's "Big Three," Ford, Stellantis and General Motors, the first time the union has walked out of all three companies at once.

Pointing to soaring CEO pay at the companies, UAW President Shawn Fain has called out the automakers to boost pay and restore benefits following union concessions after the 2008 financial crisis and ensuing auto industry bankruptcies.

"Another record quarter, another record year. As we've said for months: record profits equal record contracts," Fain said Tuesday as he announced the latest expansion of the strike at GM.

"It's time GM workers, and the whole working class, get their fair share," said Fain, who has seen gradually improved company offers as evidence the "stand up" strike is working

Read also

ECB set to pause rate hikes as eurozone feels pinch

With this week's most recent walkouts, UAW auto employees on strike numbered around 45,000.

Schurman said she was "surprised" by Fain's strategy, "but it appears to be working," she said. "They all have more on the table now than they did a month ago."

On Wednesday night, the UAW announced a tentative agreement with Ford applauded as "an historic accord" by the President Joe Biden.

The agreement, which includes a 25 percent wage hike, still must be ratified by Ford workers.

Health care, airlines, etc.

Biden also cheered an agreement between the Teamsters and UPS in July that averted a potentially calamitous strike.

Defense group General Dynamics also sealed a deal with the UAW that could avert a walkout.

The big US airlines Delta, United and American have reached agreements with pilots unions for about a 40 percent pay boost.

However, negotiations are continuing with flight attendant unions at United and American, with a holiday-season walkout not out of the question at this point.

Read also

US auto workers union reaches preliminary deal with Ford

Health care has also seen plenty of activity, with insurer Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan still on the picket line after launching a strike in mid-September.

Health network Kaiser Permanente agreed to hefty wage hikes after some 75,000 of its 85,000 employees walked out for three days in early October and threatened another stoppage next month.

Workers at pharmacy chain Walgreens have had walkouts.

In Hollywood, actors have been on the pickets since July, while the Writers Guild of America ratified its contract earlier this month after a 148-day stoppage.

New feature: Сheck out news that is picked for YOU ➡️ click on “Recommended for you” and enjoy!

Source: AFP

Online view pixel