The Power of Strikes in 2022: A Time of Increased Union Activity
By Lindsay Turpin
Union activity has recently skyrocketed, as displayed by events such as the University of California academic workers strike, the New York Times strike, and the averted railroad strike, among countless others. In an economic climate where inflation continues and the cost-of-living is increasingly unreasonable, business models that disrespect workers and accumulate wealth for those at the top must be contested.
In November, UC academic workers began a long-anticipated strike demanding better pay and benefits to cope with rising costs of housing and the detrimental effects of inflation. Though this caused a shock to operations of the UC system, canceling classes and delaying grading, it was a necessary step to force progress in negotiations with UC administration. These recent events have shown how indispensable academic workers are to the university.
The strike continued for over a month, ending on December 23rd when members of the union, United Auto Workers, voted on a new contract. Postdoctoral scholars and academic researchers achieved compromise on December 10th, increasing the minimum pay to $70,000 a year and adding benefits such as childcare, healthcare, and transportation subsidies. However, the first agreement left 36,000 academic workers still on strike. Though the final contract was chosen 13 days later, some saw issues with the new proposal. The contract includes pay increases up to 66%, but most aren’t implemented until Fall 2024. Some also complained the new wages aren’t directly tied to increases in housing costs, the most prominent issue that caused the strike.
As with much union activity, this debate showed just how adamant academic employees at the UC are about improving their living conditions. The University of California, as an employer, needs to understand the plights of its employees, with some having just over $100 to spare for a month after paying their costly rent.
On December 8th, New York Times personnel held a 24-hour strike, arguing that increased profits won by the Times in recent years have not been shared with most of its employees. Union members in the News Guild endured contract negotiations for months, and yet no satisfactory deal was reached.
The New York Times Co. share price has increased by 50% since 2018 - yet the majority of its staff have not seen the numbers reflected in their pay. The union was demanding a 5.25% annual raise over four years, which would start with the past two years. Some employees were reluctant to sacrifice the news cycle, but said it was too urgent to not go on strike. The NewsGuild tweeted, "It’s never an easy decision to refuse to do work you love, but our members are willing to do what it takes to win a better newsroom for all.”
Despite limited staff on December 8th, editors were able to keep up coverage through promoting older stories, writing pieces themselves, and preparing content ahead of the strike. But editors couldn’t have stayed on top of the news if the strike lasted much longer. It’s a tough balance for journalists - they clearly care about informing the public but need to advocate for themselves.
In another case for worker rights, the nation was on the verge of a rail shutdown in late November, so Congress passed legislation to avoid a strike, saying it would have had devastating impacts on the economy and supply chain, causing shortages and higher prices. The bill, signed by President Biden on December 2nd, ensured unions accepted the tentative agreement that had been reached earlier in the year but not agreed to by a few unions that were holding out. However, the new legislation did not include paid sick leave, which was an important priority of several unions and politicians.
Due to the nationwide suffering this scale of a strike would have caused, perhaps the legislation was warranted. But paid sick leave should not be forgotten - there will never be a perfect time to implement significant changes. This is why unions must carry on with demonstrations: disruption to business as usual is the best way to get the point across.
In September, Governor Newsom signed the Fast Food Accountability and Standards Recovery Act, which creates wage standards for fast food restaurants and increases regulation of the industry. Fast food workers were determined to make this change - they held over 300 strikes in the past year to ensure the law’s passage. As a result, pay may be increased to $22 an hour in some cases during 2023.
Not everyone is pleased with this development. Fast food companies are trying to overturn the law because they claim higher wages will cause a sharp increase in prices and restaurant closures. Though this may be true, it’s important to see the broader picture for those employed by massive fast food chains. Low wages and minimal benefits have caused a cycle of individuals being unable to afford basic services and falling further into debt.
The biggest lesson from all of these events is that unions are increasing their organizing activity and looking to expand membership, and for good reason. According to survey data from Gallup polls, the amount of Americans who approve of unions is at its highest since 1965, at about 71%. People generally believe that workers need these types of organizations to advocate for better pay, benefits, and treatment by employers. Strikes have increased by three times since 2021, and are seen as a powerful tool to acquire better contracts.
According to The New York Times, workers are motivated to organize due to high inflation and low unemployment, and this environment also allows them to be more confrontational with management. Major companies such as Amazon, Apple, Chipotle, and Starbucks saw unions form in 2022.
Extreme economic inequality is another motivating factor for unionizing. The top 10% of households have more than 68% of the wealth in the United States, according to The Federal Reserve. Additionally, the top 0.1% saw their pay increase by 390% in real wages between 1979 and 2020. Pay increases were only 28.2% for the bottom 90%.
Some claim the pandemic led to more union organizing because essential workers were praised for their persistence and indispensable work but not provided with proper wages, benefits, and safety from COVID-19. A collective anger at the hypocrisy displayed during this time may have fueled more activism for labor rights.
There will always be disruption when workers demand better pay. It’s inevitable because otherwise the status quo would continue and many would keep suffering. Strikes are a tool that allows employees to hold their employers accountable and demand the compensation they deserve. Counter arguments often insist that they want to support the economy or protect the business, but enterprise cannot be so money-oriented that it forgets about the individuals that allow it to function.