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labor ‘Broken’ US Labor Laws Could Hamper Union Wins for Workers, Experts Warn

Strikes by autoworkers, actors and writers brought wins in 2023, but analysts worry labor laws could undo progress. Worker advocates say what is badly needed is for other unions, helped by the AFL-CIO, also to launch big, ambitious organizing drives.

One of the big tests for 2024 is whether the UAW will succeed in using the impressive contracts it won with Detroit’s autoworkers to organize Toyota, Tesla and other non-union auto plants.,Photograph: Paul Sancya/AP // The Guardian

Labor experts see more wins ahead in 2024 for US unions after a year of attention-grabbing strikes and surging public support but worry gains may be stymied by the US’s “broken” labor laws.

Strikes by autoworkers, writers, actors and nurses and a threatened strike by UPS workers all led to significant wins in 2023. “The big challenge for labor in 2024 will be to take that momentum and turn it into new organizing and getting first contracts where workers have organized,” said Ken Jacobs, the co-director of the UC Berkeley Labor Center. “That’s going to be a real challenge because labor law in the US is broken.”

Among the big tests that labor faces is whether the United Auto Workers (UAW) will succeed in using the impressive contracts it won with Detroit’s automakers to organize Toyota, Tesla and other non-union auto plants, especially in the anti-union south. Another challenge is whether the Starbucks, Amazon, Trader Joe’s, Apple, Chipotle and REI workers who have unionized over the past two years will finally get first contracts that deliver improved wages and benefits.

During 2023, there were several major contract disputes, including ones involving 340,000 Teamsters at UPS, 150,000 screen and television actors, 140,000 autoworkers and 85,000 Kaiser Permanente workers. In each of those negotiations, unions came away boasting of record contracts, although only after the actors, autoworkers and Kaiser workers went on strike. “2023 has been huge for labor, both the extraordinary increase in large strikes beyond and the success of workers through those strikes,” Jacobs said. “That’s a really a turnaround from where we had been.”

The bargaining schedule for 2024 doesn’t have as many major battles. It includes 200,000 postal workers whose contract expires in September – it is illegal for them to strikes. Other expiring contracts cover 45,000 dockworkers at ports from Maine to Texas, 30,000 Boeing workers and 8,000 film crew members in Hollywood.

“Strike activity might not reach the same level next year but it’s still an opportune time to go on strike,” said Johnnie Kallas, director of the ILR Labor Action Tracker, which keeps a tally of strikes across the US. Many labor experts say it’s a favorable time to go on strike because the labor market is tight, public approval for unions is at its highest level in decades, and there’s a vigorously pro-union president in the White House. Moreover, many unions feel emboldened because of unions’ recent record gains, like the raises of more than 25% over four years that the UAW won from GM, Ford and Stellantis, with starting pay rising 68%.

“This year has certainly shown the effectiveness of withholding labor as a tool,” said Saba Waheed, the director of the UCLA Labor Center. “The number of people willing to go out into the streets has increased so much, and wage increases are bigger than we’ve seen in a long time. Every time there is a successful strike or negotiation, they’re helping set up negotiations for other workers.”

The UAW hopes its record contracts with Detroit’s automakers will set up organizing victories at auto and battery plants across the south. It has announced plans to seek to unionize Toyota, Tesla, Mercedes and BMW, and its effort to unionize the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, is racing ahead of the others, with more than 1,000 VW workers signing pro-union cards. But some auto executives, most notably Tesla’s Elon Musk, have served notice that the UAW is unwelcome. “I disagree with the idea of unions,” Musk said recently. “I just don’t like anything which creates a lords and peasants sort of thing. I think the unions naturally try to create negativity in a company.”

A big question for labor in 2024 is whether Starbucks workers, who first unionized two years ago in Buffalo and now have unionized more than 360 Starbucks, will finally get a first contract.  (Photograph: Lindsay Dedario/Reuters  //  The Guardian)

Joseph McCartin, a labor historian at Georgetown University, voiced relative optimism for the UAW. “They’re in a better position to make a move on these companies than they have ever been,” he said. “They not only have a great contract to show what they’ve accomplished, but they have the will to wage the campaign in a way that the union has not for a long time. It’s bound to be a really important campaign. There’s going to be a furious struggle.”

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Will Jones, a labor historian at the University of Minnesota, added: “A lot is resting on the UAW. It could make a big difference if they have some big victories in organizing these plants. It could have a ripple effect.”

Like the UAW, the Teamsters have launched an ambitious unionization drive in targeting the fiercely anti-union Amazon. The labor movement is also looking for many more unionization wins at universities and museums, where many white-collar workers have embraced unions to obtain better pay and a stronger voice at work.

On the strike front, labor leaders are threatening a highly innovative walkout by up to 30,000 workers in the Twin Cities in March. Unions representing 4,500 janitors, 1,000 airport workers, 2,500 security guards and thousands of teachers and support staff have lined up expiration dates so they can all go on strike at the same time. Their demands focus on housing affordability, a cleaner environment, better jobs and improving schools. “What we’re trying to do is a contribution to the evolving excitement about labor,” said Greg Nammacher, the president of a service employees local representing Twin Cities janitors and security guards.

A big question for labor in 2024 is whether Starbucks workers, who first unionized two years ago in Buffalo and now have unionized more than 360 Starbucks, will finally get a first contract after their union and the National Labor Relations Board have repeatedly accused the company of failing to bargain in good faith. Union officials complain that Starbucks has refused to negotiate for more than six months and has not put forward any contract proposals in over a year. Starbucks says it’s intent on reaching a contract.

Stephanie Luce, a labor studies professor at City University of New York, said that to pressure Starbucks to reach a contract, “we need a major disruption of corporate power”. There are growing calls for a Starbucks boycott; students at Georgetown and UCLA are urging their universities to kick out Starbucks.

Many labor leaders see another important challenge for 2024: to help ensure that Joe Biden defeats Donald Trump, the likely Republican nominee for president. McCartin said the 2024 election is reminiscent of 1948. “If you think about Harry Truman – he was not doing well in the polls, he was struggling, his party was divided,” with rival candidates Strom Thurmond and Henry Wallace, McCartin said. “When Truman won, he said that labor did it.”

McCartin said Biden is also facing a “situation of how to hold together: Biden has a youth problem. People under 35 are not enthused about him. In my view, labor is well-positioned to be an engine for the re-election of Biden. But it’s hard to prognosticate.”

Jones of the University of Minnesota said: “Labor has to play a big role. I think it’s going to be a make or break. Biden has talked a lot about turning out working-class voters, particularly white men. He’s been fairly successful at that. There’s a lot of talk of him losing support among Black and Latino voters. So the degree that Biden can turn out white, working-class voters is really critical. That’s something the UAW and other unions can really help with.” Jones said unions could make a pivotal difference in industrial states such as Michigan and Ohio.

Arguably the biggest challenge labor faces is whether unions can finally begin to reverse the decline in union membership and in the percentage of workers in unions. Just 10% of workers are in unions, down from more than 20% during the 1980s.

Many worker advocates say it’s great that the UAW has undertaken a bold, large-scale organizing drive that aims to unionize more than 100,000 workers. But these advocates say what is badly needed is for other unions, helped by the AFL-CIO, also to launch big, ambitious organizing drives.

Reversing the decline in union membership “is the big test”, Jacobs said, adding: “The UAW demonstrated what a union can do when its members are fully engaged and taking on the boss. Can unions turn that into new organizing and expanding and increasing union density? In the context of our very broken labor law, none of this is easy. But I’m the most optimistic I’ve been since I began doing this work.”

[Steven Greenhouse is a journalist and author, focusing on labour and the workplace.]