In 2023, the US Working Class Fought Back

More than half a million workers in the US went on strike this year, winning gains not only for themselves but for nonunion workers too. While there’s much more work to be done, 2023 was a year when the working class punched back at the capitalist class.

Striking United Auto Workers members rally in Center Line, Michigan, on September 22, 2023. (Photo by Kamil Krzaczynski / AFP via Getty Images)

In 2023, the US working class fought back. After decades of stagnating wages and concessionary contracts, this year workers in a vast range of industries went on the offensive.

More than 500,000 workers walked off the job this year, more than double the 224,000 that struck last year, which itself was double 2021’s numbers, according to Cornell University’s Labor Action Tracker. Baristas, journalists, actors, manufacturing workers, professors, autoworkers, health care workers: they all shared in the terrifying, exhilarating experience of walking off the job. More importantly, they won.

Autoworkers at the Big Three — Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis — wrestled back many of the concessions they’d made in recent decades, particularly in the aftermath of the Great Recession. They didn’t succeed on all fronts — some members still don’t have pensions, and not every worker is satisfied with their raise — but between the conversion of scores of temporary workers to full-time positions, hefty raises over the length of the contract, the reopening of an idled Stellantis plant in Belvidere, Illinois, and the creation of pathway for electric vehicle (EV) workers to be folded into the union’s master contracts — it was a decisive victory.

As is so often the case with unions, these gains didn’t only help their members. Nonunion autoworkers are seeing raises, too — Honda, Toyota, Hyundai, and Subaru have all announced plans to increase worker pay — as their employers try to deflate pro-union sentiment among the workforce, many of whom are dead set on joining the UAW, having seen what a union can win. The employers’ efforts may be too little, too late as the UAW moves forward with its plan of organizing roughly 150,000 nonunion autoworkers nationwide, the same number as are currently covered under the Big Three contracts.

Also this year, workers at the West Coast health care giant Kaiser Permanente won 21 percent raises after a three-day strike, and nurses in New York secured safe staffing provisions. Locomotive manufacturing workers in Erie, Pennsylvania struck for green technology and the right to strike over grievances — a critical tool when an employer persistently violates workers’ contracts —  and while they didn’t emerge victorious on everything, they did win some of it. The entertainment industry’s writers and actors — nearly 175,000 people in total — grabbed raises and a host of workplace protections, including reining in generative artificial intelligence (AI).

In the first quarter of 2023 alone, unionized workers’ wages jumped an average of 7 percent in the first year of their contracts, the biggest single-quarter uptick since 2007, according to Bloomberg Law. Overall, some 900,000 union workers secured double-digit raises this year through new contracts.

“That’s Just Class Consciousness”

It’s not just about the ballooning numbers in union workers’ paychecks. This year saw a qualitative shift too, a sense of things adding up to more than the sum of their parts. There were always bright spots in the US labor movement in the last decade or two — militant democratic unionism from the Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU), the work of the longstanding reform caucus Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) — but now, discrete fights are starting to flow into one another.

“Take the Hollywood strikes,” said labor historian Gabriel Winant, reflecting on this year. “They did it together — the Teamsters didn’t cross the picket lines — and the public was with them and seems to be with every strike now. The UAW strike, too, is a product of autoworkers’ militancy, but it also has to do with Labor Notes, DSA, and with graduate student unions. And people seem to be able to see the connection also to Amazon and Starbucks and so on.”

“That’s just class consciousness,” he added. “It feels like there is class consciousness coming out of these strikes as opposed to just trade-union consciousness.”

And strikes aren’t the only positive trend. Reform efforts within existing unions gained steam in 2023. Taking the decades of work by TDU as a model, unionized workers have gotten serious about democratizing their unions, drawing on rather than shutting down the rank-and-file initiative by which union battles are won or lost.

Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD), the recently formed reform caucus in the UAW, notched a huge win in electing seven members to the union’s international executive board in the union’s first-ever direct election, and then immediately getting to work preparing the rank and file to pull off a historic strike.

UAW president Shawn Fain is one of UAWD’s members, and as he said at this year’s TDU convention, UAWD wouldn’t exist without TDU.

“When he said, ‘Without TDU, there would be no Shawn Fain. Without TDU, there would be no UAWD. Without TDU, there would be no stand-up strike,’ I was completely blown away,” Teamsters Local 804’s Antonio Rosario told me.

Rosario joined TDU in 2016, and as an organizer for the Teamsters’ United Parcel Service (UPS) local in New York City, he’s part of another key labor story this year: the Teamsters’ preparations to strike UPS, where some 340,000 members labor under the largest private-sector contract in the country. There, just the threat of a walkout was enough to force the company to agree to the strongest contracts the workers have won in decades.

“After economic and social disruption, [there’s] a working out of a new arrangement of power,” labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein told me. “Today, the wind is at the back of the working class. Sean O’Brien and the Teamsters had the intelligence to recognize that the wind was at their backs, and then that in such a case, you can be bold.”

Reform caucuses are now popping up in quick succession inside existing unions. As Labor Notes’s Jenny Brown wrote in her own 2023 reflection:

There’s already a sizable reform pole in the 1.2 million-member United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) centered in the union’s biggest local. Rail Machinist reformers look set to finally win a challenged election in the 7,500-member District Lodge 19, which represents rail mechanics all over the country. A new caucus, CREW, has emerged in the Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE).

Then there are the efforts to form new unions. Starbucks Workers United has now unionized 360 of the coffee giant’s stores, inspiring workers across retail and food-service to get organized too. Amazon workers are also trying to assemble under the union banner — either independently as part of the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) or Carolina Amazonians United for Solidarity and Empowerment (CAUSE), as a minority union such as Amazonians United, or with established unions like the Teamsters or the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU). Importantly, at both Starbucks and Amazon, major obstacles to winning first contracts remain, as the megacorporations refuse to negotiate with or even recognize the unions formed by their workers.

Accumulating Momentum

Despite the exuberant talk of a Hot Labor Summer or a Striketober, none of this year’s labor activity was unprecedented. Strike levels are nowhere near the heights reached in the aftermath of World War II, or even in the public-sector rebellions of the early 1970s. The unionization rate remains stubbornly low, sitting at a measly 10.1 percent last year. Even with the most pro-labor National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in generations — which has demanded the reinstatement of workers illegally fired for organizing and issued important rulings such as the recent Cemex decision, which says that if an employer commits an unfair labor practice that would necessitate another union election, the employer automatically must recognize the union instead — the playing field is far from level. Should we lose the labor-friendly Board after the 2024 presidential election, even these favorable rulings will become vulnerable.

And not every strike ended in victory this year. The two-year-long, hundreds-strong United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) strike at Warrior Met in Brookwood, Alabama, concluded with workers returning to the mine without a contract. Local anti-union elected officials played a central role in that fight, with the governor using state troopers to escort scabs and judges issuing injunctions that hobbled the picket line. The UAW’s efforts to organize Southern auto plants will surely require surmounting similarly intransigent local officials who have no interest in a UAW local establishing itself in their jurisdiction. It will take disciplined, militant rank-and-file ingenuity, backed up by a united labor movement, to overcome such opposition.

Yet despite the immense amount of work still to be done, the feeling of accumulating working-class momentum this year is unmissable when speaking with workers day in and day out. It’s what Lichtenstein described to me as the working out of “new constellations of power and income” following a period of economic and social disruption.

Myself, when I’m asked to explain it — the growing militancy of the US working class, the strike numbers, the union reform efforts, the new organizing drives — I often quote one worker with whom I spoke earlier this year.

Tony Falco was the founding organizing director of Trader Joe’s United (TJU), an independent union. Trader Joe’s workers have voted to join the union at stores in California, Kentucky, Massachusetss, and Minnesota, though the company is now trying to decertify the first location that formed TJU, in Hadley, Massachusetts.

I wrote an article exploring the opportunities and challenges that come with forming an independent union in the United States at a corporation with the resources to fight it, speaking to many of the founding members of TJU.

The forty-three-year-old Falco has worked at Trader Joe’s for seventeen years; he works at the Hadley location. Amid a long conversation, here’s what particularly stuck with me:

There’s been a break in the mass brainwashing in which we’re all meant to just suffer and work and be exploited. There’s a moment where you think, ‘Maybe not. Maybe it’s time to seize our power.’ What we’re doing is not without risk, but I don’t feel scared. I’m feeling, and I hope other workers are feeling, the empowerment that we’ve yet to see the results of. I feel a sense of it already. And I can find something else if need be — that’s part of where the lack of fear comes from. Being underpaid? I can get that elsewhere if I have to.

I’ve heard this sentiment — “Being underpaid? I can get that elsewhere if I have to” — if not in those exact words, from workers across industries and at workplaces big and small. If the feeling of millions of people can be summarized in such a short refrain, it is that one.

The pandemic had a way of cutting through the bullshit. The illusion that workers and their bosses are one big family crumbled as one part of that family risked their health and safety or worked mind-boggling mandatory overtime to bring in the money. Executives retreated to remote work and second homes while workers like Falco kept bagging groceries, exposed to a deadly virus for meager wages.

The tight labor market, born of the heights of the pandemic, has not entirely receded: unemployment currently sits at 3.7 percent. That won’t last forever, and it’s why, across the labor movement, there is an at-times feverish scramble to, as Falco put it, “seize our power” before the capitalist class reorganizes a new offensive. The clock is ticking.