Over the past few months, the United States has seemingly entered a new era for American unions. After decades of decline, major American unions — including the Teamsters, the United Automobile Workers, and the Writers Guild of America, and the Screen Actors Guild — have taken militant stances in contract negotiations. Thus far, two have chalked up considerable victories. This week, workers at Kaiser Permanente walked off the job in the largest strike of health care workers in U.S. history. All at once, it seems union power is on the rise again.
Where did this come from, and what does it mean? To answer this, HBR spoke with Sharon Block, a former member of the National Labor Relations Board, who is currently a Professor of Practice and Executive Director of the Center for Labor and a Just Economy at Harvard Law School. The following interview was conducted via Google docs.
HBR: Right now, we’re seeing a level of union action that feels unprecedented in recent memory: the Teamsters leveraged a very credible strike threat to win a new contract for UPS workers, Hollywood writers and actors have spent months on strike, and the United Auto Workers are striking against the Big Three automakers. Quickly, how did we get to this point?
Block: I think that there are a couple of trends driving this increased strike activity. First, the public’s sympathies seem to be with workers. Unions are enjoying higher support among the public than they have in decades. That gives confidence to workers considering going out on strike. Also, I believe that unions are considering the leverage that the tight labor market gives them. They are highly motivated to negotiate advantageous contracts now, so they can lock in their enhanced power. Finally, many of the unions that have been engaged in these high profile labor actions are in sectors where big, transformational change is either just on the horizon or already here. For example, the Hollywood strikes have focused on what the impact of AI is going to be in their work and the UAW strike is in part about how the auto industry is going to transition to an EV future. Workers want to have a voice in how these transformations impact them – active unions give them a meaningful seat at the table as decisions are made that will define the future. That suggests to me that these strikes may go on for a while — workers may be celebrating “union victory autumn” for a while.
When was the last time we saw organized labor flex this kind of muscle?
It has been generations since we have seen this kind of robust labor activity. I haven’t seen this level of action in my career.
Why has it been so long?
The labor movement has been forced to play defense for a long time by trends in our economy, like the move from a manufacturing economy to a service economy, the increasing brazenness of employer opposition to unions and the weakness in our labor laws that often fail to protect workers engaged in collective action. The pandemic — and the huge profits that many corporations made during the pandemic — seems to have awoken a new commitment among workers — both in unions and not — to stand up to employers and demand what they believe they deserve. For workers in unions, that spirit seems to be driving increasing strike activity.
One of the really striking things about this moment is the return of big strikes. The Teamsters didn’t strike, but they seemingly came very close and claimed to win a good contract. Writers and actors, of course, did strike and the writers are claiming to have secured a lot of their demands. And the UAW is using a limited strike tactic — standup strikes — that’s disruptive but also gives them the option to escalate. What’s behind the return of the strike, and what are the implications of seeing these big strikes happening? Or, am I overstating this shift?
I don’t think you are overstating this shift. The data shows that there has been more strike activity this year than we’ve seen in a while. Again, I think some of this activity is being driven by a collective response to the pandemic in which workers are saying, “enough.” Many workers, including UPS drivers and factory workers like auto workers, put their lives on the line to continue to work during the pandemic. As a result, they generated big profits for their employers. They are now demanding their fair share of that success. In addition, I believe that success is contagious. Workers are inspiring each other.
There’s new leadership at both the Teamsters and the UAW, and both of them have promised more hard-knuckle tactics than their predecessors. What’s the significance of this return to a more militant approach, and do you think we can expect to see more of this in the near future?
My perspective is that the new leadership at the Teamsters and the UAW are very attuned to their members — I think in this moment their members want leaders who reflect their desire to stand up for their interests and demand what they believe they deserve. We can see this dynamic even among workers who aren’t in unions — they have come out of the pandemic and into a tight labor market, amidst skyrocketing CEO pay and stock buybacks, demanding higher wages. The new leadership at the Teamsters and UAW are doing what good union leaders do — translating their members’ mood and interests into effective strategy to succeed at the bargaining table. Because success is contagious, I do believe that we will continue to see members and their leaders demanding their fair share loudly and proudly.
Earlier this year, the Biden administration passed legislation that stopped railroad workers from striking and forced a contract on them. This time, however, the president has promised to show up and walk the picket line with striking UAW workers. How do you understand the politics around organized labor right now? Is there any reason to think that the legal and political environment organized labor is working within might change?
President Biden’s decision to show up at the UAW Willow Ridge picket line was both unprecedented and unsurprising. President Biden has been saying repeatedly that he wants to be the most pro-union president in history. By visiting striking auto workers, he put his feet where his mouth has always been. In addition, it is important to remember that Biden was in the White House when the Obama-Biden Administration was part of asking the UAW to make incredible sacrifices to save the auto industry. So, it makes sense that now that he is in the White House again, he wants to stand with UAW workers as they ask to share in the companies’ success.
In addition, Biden’s visit gives him an opportunity to further define his vision for a clean energy future. This visit shows that in his vision, workers have to have a say in how this transformation to an EV future comes about.
I wish I could be more optimistic about the prospect for a change in the legal environment for labor. Before we will see significant labor law reform pass the U.S. Congress, we will need a shift in our political environment. If President Biden and others who are supporting these strikes are rewarded by voters for their commitment to the labor movement, maybe we will see the political change we need to improve the prospect of the kind of labor law reform we need — like the kind of reforms that my colleague Ben Sachs and I proposed in our Clean Slate for Worker Power project.
Despite hitting record lows in membership, there’s been a big uptick in support for unions in recent years. But when I think of union actions, I mostly think about union drives at places like Amazon and Starbucks. How should we understand the significance of the recent actions by the Teamsters, UAW, etc.? And do they mean anything for other union / unionization efforts?
I believe that success breeds more success. Lots of workers are worrying about the future — is AI going to eliminate their jobs or is their boss using technology to spy on them at work, is climate change going to put them in danger on the job and are their companies going to prioritize stock buybacks over wage increases, leaving them unable to keep up with inflation. With the successful outcomes in so many of these strikes, workers are going to understand in a way maybe they haven’t in a long time that unions are relevant to their lives — that they are a way to have a say in the future. I think all workers want the future to happen with them, not to them.
So, as all of this unfolds, what are you watching for? What do you think the significant longer term effects of this moment might be?
Of course, I’m watching to see how the UAW strike resolves. If the companies and the union can find a way to successfully chart a path to an EV future that protects workers’ middle class wages, I hope that will quiet a lot of critics of this strike. I’m also watching a number of campaigns at the state and local level to support innovative legislation that empowers workers. For example, here in Massachusetts SEIU is supporting legislation to create a collective bargaining system for rideshare drivers. In New York, organizations are supporting wage boards for nail salon workers. And California has created a new council, which includes representatives of workers, to set higher labor standards for fast food workers.
Are there lessons for companies that are watching this unfold? What should leaders be thinking about right now?
I hope that corporate leaders are rethinking the reflex to try to minimize labor costs at the expense of their relationship with their workforce. This summer’s strikes are demonstrating that workers are willing and able to say “enough.” Companies can avoid a lot of public ill will and strife if they think about whether their workers are getting a fair share of the companies’ success before increasing CEO pay or embarking on yet another round of stock buybacks.