As we gathered to reflect on 2023, we found ourselves discussing several remarkable instances of workers standing up for themselves, whether to organize or secure better pay and conditions through collective bargaining.
We witnessed a profound resurgence in the United States labor movement. Workers are not just standing up but standing tall, with unions taking center stage in the fight for a more just and equitable society. The labor movement is undergoing a revival that is reshaping the landscape of organizing, collective bargaining, and politics. And that’s good for everyone.
In the past year, workers from diverse sectors of the economy – automotive, healthcare, transportation, entertainment, hospitality, food service, and more – came together to demand not only better pay and benefits but, more importantly, dignity and respect. We watched 330,000 Teamsters engage in down-to-the-wire negotiations with UPS; 75,000 healthcare workers at Kaiser Permanente wage a 3-day strike before reaching a historic agreement; 170,000 writers and actors strike; and 40,000 UAW members embark on a six-week strike against the Big Three automakers, emerging with substantial rewards.
The question that naturally arises is, why now? Why are workers rising up with such fervor and determination?
The answer lies in deep-rooted issues that have festered for decades. Income inequality has been on the rise, corporate executives have enjoyed exorbitant compensation packages, and insatiable corporate greed has left American workers struggling to make ends meet. Faced with these challenges, workers across the country are choosing to unite and take action, and they turn to unions to get results.
The UAW strike struck a particular chord with both the broader public and labor movement because it highlighted the profound clash between corporate greed and demand for fair compensation by American workers. While corporations have often argued their inability to meet union demands, citing costs and competitive market conditions, the public learned that the 10 individuals who’ve served as chief executive officers of the Big Three auto companies since 2010 have collected more than $1 billion in compensation — or over $25 million per year per person; that’s a lot of money. And this is after our tax dollars bailed them out in 2008! In stark contrast, wages for U.S. auto workers, whether unionized or not, declined by approximately 17% during the same period. This glaring disparity underscores the pressing need to tackle income inequality head-on.
This year’s strikes did more than secure gains for the unions involved. They played out against the ongoing class struggle that has defined the United States over the past five decades since union membership started its decline. We’ve all watched the rich get richer while companies squeezed workers and unions in order to increase shareholder profits. In 2021, the average CEO in the U.S. made 399 times as much as the average worker in their organization. That’s up from 59 times as much in 1989 — almost a seven-fold increase!
These strikes were also about social justice. They’re about fighting for what we care about the most: integrity, community, and the unwavering commitment to be a voice for those who often lack one or cannot advocate for themselves in the face of big money. They demonstrated the potency of collective bargaining and the unyielding determination of the labor movement. And they showed the power workers have when we stop focusing on ‘me’ and instead advocate for ‘us.’
These actions underscored the enduring importance of the labor movement as one of the few remaining societal institutions capable of looking beyond its own self-interest to advocate for the common good.
All together in 2023, there were 22 major work stoppages involving at least 1,000 workers, with a combined total of over half a million American workers participating in strikes at some point during the year. That’s the largest number of major work stoppages since 2011. This surge in labor action has not been limited to unionized workers. Non-unionized workers have turned to collective action and sought unionization as a means to secure their fair share.
The battles fought by the Teamsters, UAW, Kaiser healthcare workers, and here in our UWUA locals have all brought into focus the urgent need to address income inequality and excessive executive compensation.
In the wake of the successful resolution of the Kaiser Permanente strike, Acting U.S. Labor Secretary Julie Su emphasized, “This agreement demonstrates what is possible when workers have a voice and a seat at the table. Collective bargaining works.” Healthcare workers, who play a critical role in our society, stood up for their fair share and achieved a groundbreaking contract, achieving a remarkable 21% wage increase over four years and crucial protections from outsourcing. The Kaiser strike stands as a shining testament to the ability of workers to drive positive change through collective action.
New frontiers for UWUA
Right here in our own union, we achieved notable first contracts in recent months, including agreements for wind techs at DTE, customer service workers at Elizabethtown Gas, and workers at Delta Gas and Liberty Gas.
Each of these is significant because they represent new frontiers for our union and offer a roadmap for our union’s future. In the case of DTE wind techs, the agreement established high standards for good union jobs in the renewable sector. At Elizabethtown Gas, we showed the power of internal organizing, welcoming new groups of members at a company where UWUA had long represented field workers. In the Delta and Liberty cases, we reached across state lines and showed that workers in right-to-work states like Kentucky and Georgia are willing to stand together and fight to achieve UWUA standards in pay and conditions.
The year ahead
Looking ahead to 2024 and beyond, the lessons we collectively learned in 2023 — along with the conversations we held at our 32nd Constitutional Convention — will guide our path forward. These experiences offer concrete proof of our potential to expand the influence of our union and build member power. They demonstrate that organized labor can drive significant change, even when faced with strong resistance from employers.
To sustain our union’s momentum, it’s imperative that we continue to organize. Whether it’s reaching out to colleagues within the same company, as seen at Elizabethtown Gas and DTE, or connecting with employees in non-union companies across state lines, as seen with Delta and Liberty, the key to success lies in actively engaging with fellow workers and our communities.
The National Union is committed to helping make it happen. Our dedicated staff is prepared to assist locals with whatever is needed for organizing efforts, legislative and regulatory challenges, and negotiating contracts.
To maintain momentum and keep positive results coming, each of UWUA’s 205 local unions should plan on participating in its respective regional conference in 2024. And UWUA members should assess their workplace and identify opportunities to strengthen our influence within our current employers. Think about who you work with who isn’t yet a UWUA member — both the folks down the hall at your current location or workers at out-of-state branches under the same corporate umbrella.
Part of what happens when we shift our focus from ‘me’ to ‘us’ is that we start to more clearly recognize that every non-management employee at our workplaces should be part of our union. For instance, if you work as a water plant operator, this means acknowledging the contributions of workers who handle customer service calls or billing inquiries. Every worker in our industry should benefit from the unity of our union. Every worker should be treated as a current or future member of our union family.
Take pride in your UWUA
The single most effective way to encourage non-union employees to join us is by taking pride in your union and its accomplishments. You, as members, are our most powerful advocates. Conversely, if you don’t stand up for our union and take pride in your membership, others won’t be inclined to do so either.
Don’t take your union and your contract for granted. It’s far too easy for members in high-union density states like Massachusetts, New York, or Michigan to forget the struggles of our predecessors who paved the way for our current privileges. Recent organizing efforts in Kentucky and Georgia serve as stark reminders of the harsh treatment workers face without union representation and how challenging it is to establish a union presence. So, we ask that you never forget these struggles, and show pride in what you have as a UWUA member.
The moment is now
Positive public sentiment regarding organized labor is at levels not seen in decades, with the public increasingly aware of the disparities between management and labor. Workers recognize their pivotal role in the success of their employers and are no longer willing to remain passive. This year’s historic strikes and the substantial gains achieved in union contracts are emblematic of this evolving sentiment.
A new era for the labor movement has dawned, and the achievements of the auto workers, the Kaiser healthcare workers, and our own success stories like Delta Gas and Liberty Gas serve as testaments to the might of collective action, unity, and a steadfast dedication to securing a brighter future for all workers. These examples show the transformative power of collective bargaining and the importance of a strong and unified labor movement.
It’s essential to recognize that the labor movement’s resurgence is not just about better wages and benefits, although those are crucial components. It’s also about upholding fundamental values of integrity, community, and the commitment to providing a voice for all. Organized labor plays a vital role in shaping a fair and equitable society.
The recent resurgence of the United States labor movement tells a compelling story of workers across various sectors uniting to address income inequality, excessive executive compensation, and corporate greed. From the UAW’s historic strike and groundbreaking contracts to our own strong first contracts at Delta and Liberty, these stories illustrate the power of collective action and the determination of workers to secure their fair share.
As we move forward, it is evident that the labor movement’s impact extends beyond these companies and contracts. It reflects a broader resurgence of workers realizing the strength of unity and collective bargaining in their pursuit of a better future. The labor movement is not just a force for economic gains; it’s a movement that embodies values of integrity, community, and providing a voice for those who need it.
The time is ripe for organizing, and the successes we’ve seen in recent years demonstrate the potential for positive change. It’s a new era for the labor movement, and it’s crucial that our members take pride in our union and engage with others to highlight the importance of organized labor. As we unite and spread the message, we can continue to make a difference in the lives of workers across the nation.