It’s the summer of the strike: Hollywood actors and writers are staging a massive joint walkout, UPS Teamsters have won a historic tentative agreement on the back of a strike threat, and a major labor stoppage is likely in coming months at one of the “Big Three” American automakers. What does this recent wave of activity in the labor movement tell us about the power of a strike?
We often view power as being concentrated at the top. The billionaire capitalist class owns it all and dictate the conditions under which everyone else, forced to sell their labor to survive, must live.
While this is true, the ultrarich’s power is derived from the wealth they extract from workers. The workers they employ produce the profits that sustain capitalists’ enormous strength. This very fact is what makes the strike the most powerful tool that the working class has: by withholding their labor, strikers eat into corporate profits and force employers to make concessions. It’s a tool that workers across the country, in various industries, are now using to demand a greater share of the wealth they create.
The Screen Actors Guild — American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) launched their strike on July 14, 2023, after failing to reach a tentative agreement with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), which represents over three hundred fifty Hollywood production companies in collective bargaining with the union. It is the first SAG-AFTRA strike in forty-three years.
Workers on strike with SAG-AFTRA joined the Writers Guild of America (WGA), which has been on strike since May 2, 2023. This marks the first time writers and actors have been on strike simultaneously since 1960. Major issues in both strikes include Hollywood producers’ use of technology, primarily artificial intelligence (AI), in an attempt to cut costs by replacing the labor of writers and actors.
Writers in WGA are fighting against the use of AI to generate scripts on the cheap. Meanwhile, actors are fighting the use of their likeness in AI-generated content without informed consent and fair compensation. While this may sound like a dystopian nightmare reserved for the faraway future, it’s a real, near-term threat that Hollywood production companies are fighting to uphold.
Actors are also fighting for a fair share of residuals from streaming services, as studios refuse to release the streaming counts for content on streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon. In the meantime, residual checks for actors have shrunk from a large portion of most working actors’ salaries to literal pennies per paycheck.
Actors and writers on strike are calling attention to the fact that Hollywood runs on their labor. When they stop working, Hollywood stops working. These entertainment workers are going on strike to fight for themselves. But workers of all kinds are getting screwed as badly or worse than writers and actors — and they can flex their muscle against their bosses just as powerfully by walking off the job.
Building a Strike Threat at UPS
The Teamsters and UPS reached a tentative agreement on Tuesday, July 25, almost three weeks after negotiations broke down on July 5. Within those twenty days, UPS Teamsters across the country ramped up strike preparations, many with the help of the grassroots reform movement Teamsters for a Democratic Union. They rallied with practice pickets and contract actions and turned out thousands of members and community supporters to demonstrate Teamsters’ readiness to strike.
Members will begin voting to ratify the tentative agreement on August 3, and voting will conclude August 22. The leveraging of a credible strike threat among the rank and file won UPS Teamsters significant gains on their priority demands.
The tentative agreement includes the elimination of the two-tier 22.4 system that paid some drivers less for the same work. Pay for part-time UPS workers, who make up over half of UPS’s workforce, would start at at least $21 an hour — an immediate increase of up to $5.50 for some part-timers, previously making as little as $15.50.
For some UPS Teamsters, this year’s contract campaign has felt like a major shift in how strikes are used. “Before, the company would use the strike against us, to scare us,” Carlos Silva, a full-time UPS driver in Southern California, told Alexandra Bradbury and Luis Feliz Leon of Labor Notes. “Like, ‘If you don’t want this contract, you’ll go on strike.’ Now it’s the reverse — we’re using it against them. That’s a hell of a tool to have.”
For the first time in many workers’ lifetimes, the strike is being reclaimed as a weapon of the working class. At places like UPS, which transports approximately 6 percent of the total United States GDP every single day, wielding that weapon would cause major economic disruption.
UAW Reformers Prepare to Strike the Big Three
United Auto Workers (UAW) president Shawn Fain has begun building a strike threat against the Big Three auto manufacturers of Detroit, where UAW represents over one hundred fifty thousand workers across Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis. During a July 11 address to UAW members via Facebook Live, Fain said loud and clear: “The Big Three is our strike target.”
“This is our generation-defining moment. It’s our obligation, not only to ourselves and the working class, but to future generations, to fight for and win economic justice,” Fain continued on the livestream.
Fain unseated incumbent Ray Curry earlier this year on a reform slate, with the campaign slogan: “No Corruption, No Concessions, No Tiers.” It was the first time in the union’s history that international leadership was directly elected by members. Fain’s candidacy was supported by Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD), a rank-and-file reform caucus of UAW that was founded in 2019. UAWD fought in 2019 for direct elections for top officers through the “One Member, One Vote” campaign, following a major corruption scandal that rocked the rank and file and landed a handful of former union officials in federal prison.
This year’s contract negotiations at the Big Three may be a new day for the UAW, under leadership now promising to a strike threat to end tiered pay scales and years of concessions. UAW’s contract with the Big Three headed into negotiations on Thursday, July 27, and is set to expire on September 14, 2023.
Why Strikes Work
By withholding their labor, workers lay bare the fact that they are the ones who make society run — that “without our brain and muscle, not a single wheel can turn.” While workers might be able to organize protests or sign petitions decrying exploitation — both of which can be effective organizing tools as part of a larger strategy — these tactics often fall short on their own. After all, a capitalist can ignore a petition, and they can drown out the sound of protests until the crowds thin and activists burn out.
But a capitalist can’t ignore a strike, because a strike fundamentally disrupts the capitalist’s ability to keep running their business. And it demonstrates their dependence on the workers’ labor. As NYU sociologist Vivek Chibber has said, “This ability to crash the entire system, just by refusing to work, gives workers a kind of leverage that no other group in society has, except capitalists themselves.”
More, and more frequent, strike activity could mean a new beginning for the US labor movement. Decades of decline in both union density and strike activity have produced stagnant wages and increasing wealth inequality and left many workers, union and nonunion alike, demoralized. Now many union workers are taking power back from corrupt, do-nothing leaderships, and they are fed up with concessionary contracts. And in striking and demanding more for themselves, workers from Hollywood movie sets to Detroit auto plants can also raise expectations for nonunion workers at giant corporations like Amazon.
The strike is back in a big way — and not a moment too soon.