US Labor Is Having a Movement Moment

The successful UAW strike was the latest sign that the union movement is having a moment. Amid so much gloom in the world, US labor has emerged as an unlikely bright spot with genuine dynamism.

UAW member on a picket line outside the General Motors Co. Ypsilanti Processing Center in Ypsilanti, Michigan, on September 22, 2023.(Emily Elconin / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

It’s a good sign when it’s hard to keep track of all the different labor strikes and resulting tentative agreements.

Perhaps most notably, United Auto Workers members ratified their deals with the Big Three auto companies late last week. Coupled with the announcement of the Screen Actors Guild’s (SAG-AFTRA) tentative agreement on November 8, it seems we may have reached the end of a cycle of labor struggle that began in the early summer of 2023. (Actors have gone back to work but are still considering whether to ratify the deal.)

Now is a good time to take stock of this moment of renewed labor militancy and what it could mean for the country’s political future.

Bigger, Bolder Demands

A notable feature of the UAW strike and other recent labor struggles is the type of demands that workers are raising and, in many cases, winning. Even in the traditional realm of wages and benefits, unions are focusing more on lower paid (and often younger) workers in their bargaining unit.

At Stellantis, for example, the lowest-paid temp workers will see a pay raise of 165 percent over the life of the new contract. In addition, after ninety days of employment all temp workers will automatically become full-time.

The new starting wage for permanent workers will leap by 33 percent, to over $30 an hour, when factoring in the estimated cost-of-living adjustment (COLA). The drastic reduction in tiers will further mean a massive pay raise for workers previously at the bottom of the ladder. Some workers at Mopar (a subsidiary of Stellantis) are getting an immediate 76 percent hike as a direct result of the tier elimination.

Other unions are also making their lowest-wage workers a priority. Back in early July, talks between the Teamsters and the United Parcel Service (UPS) broke down specifically over the issue of part-time wages. Prior to the new contract, many part-timers earned as low as $16 per hour, despite comprising the majority of the company’s workforce. As Teamsters president Sean O’Brien made the rounds on national news networks pleading his case, the message “Part-time America Won’t Work” was front and center. While the specifics vary across locals, under the new contract many part-timers will enjoy up to a 40 percent wage increase.

The Teamsters also successfully nixed the hated “22.4” tier among package car drivers. Tiers and dramatic pay gaps among workers are a recipe for division and demoralization, and it appears unions are recognizing the need to attack such provisions if they are to have a future.

The demands that go beyond wages and benefits are even more striking. The UAW led the way on this front, with its president, Shawn Fain, constantly emphasizing that their fight was for the entire working class.

Perhaps the most UAW’s stunning victory was on investment and the production process. Striking workers forced Stellantis to agree to not only reopen its Belvidere Assembly Plant in Illinois but also invest in a new electric vehicle (EV) battery plant. General Motors will fold some EV battery plants into the UAW master agreement as well. At Stellantis and Ford, the union now has the right to strike over plant closures and product investment.

For generations, the idea that labor unions can assert power over capital’s investment decisions has been virtually off the table (despite the sporadic efforts of labor). The UAW is showing that it’s possible to begin to claw back this prerogative. By proactively taking on the electric vehicle transition, they are also proving labor does not have to accept that the green transition will be bad for workers.

Striking unions have confronted other looming issues for the working class. After decades of worsening work-life balance and auto companies’ overreliance on overtime, the UAW demanded a thirty-two-hour workweek. While the union did not win that ambitious ask, Fain and company have reintroduced free time as a central bargaining issue and seem committed to the issue for the long haul.

In the Hollywood strikes, artificial intelligence (AI) was a key sticking point in negotiations for both the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and SAG-AFTRA. The movie studios wanted to pay extras once and then have carte blanche to use their digital replica in the future, as well as to rely increasingly on AI-generated written material.

SAG-AFTRA’s tentative agreement limits management’s hand, mandating consent and compensation for the use of actors’ digital replicas. The WGA deal, which members have approved, imposes strict limits on the use of AI in the writing process and guarantees that any AI-generated material can not be used to undermine a writer’s credit.

Automation is a growing factor in the logistics industry as well, with companies like UPS and Amazon beginning to roll out almost fully automated centers. In their new contract with UPS, the Teamsters secured a technology committee that must review and approve any new introductions of technology from the company. In a separate fight, Teamsters in California aggressively lobbied for a bill to ban dangerous self-driving trucks from operating without a human safety operator aboard.

More sections of the labor movement are recognizing that they can’t ignore “noneconomic” issues that are critical to the well-being of their members. Demands around things like investment decisions, artificial intelligence, and overwork will be crucial to labor’s survival — and expansion.

The Return of the Strike

While it would be an overstatement to call the last few months a genuine strike “wave” — compared to historic figures, the number of workers walking out has been relatively low — we can still say that labor’s strike muscle is getting stronger. The UAW, WGA, and SAG-AFTRA all won significant gains through strikes. And while the Teamsters ultimately did not walk out, they took UPS to the edge with a credible strike threat that culminated in practice picketing across the country.

These labor actions have garnered substantial media attention and won majority support among the US public. While we shouldn’t fetishize strikes as a panacea — militancy is necessary, not sufficient, for labor’s revival — nothing dramatizes the conflict between labor and capital and forces onlookers (whether a casual news viewer or the president of the United States) to pick a side quite like a strike can. The sight of workers and union leaders making their case on major news networks to millions of people can only have helped raise class consciousness across the country.

This brings us to another feature of labor’s current moment: the return of the charismatic, high-profile union leader. In US labor’s heyday, union leaders such as Walter Reuther, John L. Lewis, and A. Philip Randolph were household names recognized as major players in national politics. With the waning of labor’s strength, that hasn’t been the case for a while. But it might be starting to change.

UAW’s Fain has gone viral multiple times during the strike, with his class-struggle Facebook live streams and plainspoken religious radicalism. The Teamsters’ O’Brien used the media to make his case against part-time poverty during a critical stage of UPS negotiations, and — as seen in his latest confrontation with Oklahoma senator Markwayne Mullin — is not afraid to bring his tough-talking demeanor to the halls of Congress. SAG-AFTRA president Fran Drescher’s fiery rants against Hollywood studios were shared widely across social media. Though not on strike this year (yet), Association of Flight Attendants president Sara Nelson has emerged as an emblem of working-class struggle.

To be clear, these leaders are not more important than the millions of workers they represent — in many cases, they literally would not be there in the first place without a rank-and-file movement. But all effective movements have effective leaders, and these tribunes are managing to capture the public’s imagination.

At a time when the two major presidential contenders for the presidency are largely unpopular, and there’s deep distrust in political leadership, union leaders are filling the vacuum and helping refocus the national debate on working-class issues.

Simultaneously, labor fights are burnishing the union image as the anchor of a broader social movement. Right now labor is sexy, and support for unions among young people especially is sky high. In left organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America, massive numbers of members are voting with their feet and making strike support a de facto priority; a smaller core is getting rank-and-file jobs to try to democratize unions. Amid so much gloom in the world, labor has emerged as a bright spot with real dynamism.

The Legitimization of Rank-and-File Reform

When the independent Amazon Labor Union became the first to organize an Amazon warehouse in April 2022, it raised questions about the relevance of traditional unions. How could a small independent union take on Amazon, yet much larger unions with more resources could not? Would existing unions simply be left behind as labor entered a new era?

Recent events have shown the traditional blue-collar unions are still of vital importance to the future of the labor movement. Possessing millions of members and still-significant resources, these unions should be reformed and revived rather than replaced.

In fact, it’s already happening. Reform elements in the labor movement that had been marginalized and even vilified for decades are enjoying not just success but legitimacy. Labor Notes, a national network of militant union reformers, has experienced a surge of interest and activity in recent years. Its 2022 conference was the largest and perhaps most youthful one ever, and its 2024 conference is shaping up to be larger still.

Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), the rank-and-file reform caucus in the Teamsters union, has existed since the mid-1970s. After helping win reform leadership at the national level in 2021, TDU (for whom I am a staffer) played a critical role in the UPS contract campaign. The group’s annual convention in early November was the second-largest ever, with five hundred attendees. Not only did Teamsters president O’Brien speak, but so did UAW president Fain. This would have been unthinkable just a decade ago.

Fain himself would not have come to power without Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD), the new reform caucus in the UAW. The caucus successfully fought for direct, one-member-one-vote elections for leadership instead of the old convention delegate system. In fall 2022 elections, five UAWD candidates won seats on the executive board, while the presidential race with Fain went to a runoff. Finally, in March 2023, Fain prevailed  by a slim margin.

The surge in reform efforts has inspired members of other unions to rebuild their own organizations. A caucus called Essential Workers for Democracy has sprung up in the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), with some attending the TDU convention. Members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) launched a reform caucus called CREW (Caucus of Rank-and-File Entertainment Workers) and are gearing up for their contract fight next summer.

This is all a testament to the growth in power and influence of labor’s reform elements. These networks are talking and learning from each other, cohering around institutions like Labor Notes. The work has been decades in the making and is finally paying off.

New Horizons

Despite the outbreak of labor activity in recent years, union density has continued its slow decline. Of course, it was always wishful thinking to believe that stirrings in the labor movement would instantly produce a historic upsurge in organizing. Still, there are signs that the recent militancy could be a springboard toward new, dynamic organizing.

The indications have been most apparent in the UAW, with Fain immediately declaring after the Big Three strike that “when we return to the bargaining table in 2028, it won’t just be with the Big Three, but with the Big Five or Big Six.” Bloomberg has reported that workers at Tesla’s plant in Fremont, California, have already formed a UAW organizing committee, and other auto companies like Honda, Toyota, and Hyundai have announced generous wage increases, demonstrating the power of unions to raise standards across an industry.

It is unclear whether we’re seeing the rebirth of organized labor in the United States. But labor is clearly having a movement moment, with a hopeful spirit we haven’t witnessed in decades. The key now is make the most of that opportunity before it slips away.