Union momentum is strong heading into 2024Lee Saunders / December 29, 2023
When working people stand together, raise their voice and show their power, they win.
That’s the lesson of 2023, a year in which workers boldly asserted their rights and refused to accept less than their fair share of the value they create.
Through October, nearly 500,000 workers have taken the courageous step of going on strike this year, three times the number that did during the first 10 months of 2022. And almost 900,000 union workers have won pay hikes of at least 10 percent over the last year.
AFSCME affiliates across the country have been a part of this wave of strike activity. From workers in Yamhill County, Oregon, to employees in the Morgan County, Ohio, school district, AFSCME members withheld their labor until their employer afforded them the respect they deserve.
This is happening across the economy – from health care to hospitality. Writers, actors and other workers in the entertainment industry hung together for months until they finally got a better deal from their employers. Sometimes, just the threat of a strike forces management to soften and cede to workers’ demands. That’s what happened in the standoff between the city of San Jose, California and the Municipal Employees’ Federation–AFSCME Local 101 this summer. Similarly, the Teamsters were prepared to walk off the job at UPS but ultimately didn’t have to, using the leverage of a 97 percent strike authorization vote to land a historic contract.
Perhaps the year’s highest-profile worker action came from the United Auto Workers. In an unprecedented gambit, the union went on strike against all of the Big Three automakers – Ford, General Motors and Stellantis – at the same time. UAW now has contracts with all three companies that include life-changing raises of up to 160 percent, as well as greater retirement security and union protections for those working on electric vehicles.
When workers are able to organize, bargain collectively and go on strike when necessary, the benefits are felt especially in communities of color. Unionization has been an economic lifeline for generations of Black people, in the public as well as the private sector. My father was a bus driver in the city of Cleveland, and while we sure weren’t rich when I was growing up, his union wages and benefits meant that we could have a decent life.
Unions are a force for racial equity. While there are still major pay and wealth gaps between Black and White workers, they would be much larger if not for unions. And in 2022, median earnings for Black union members were more than 20 percent higher than for Black workers who don’t belong to a union.
No wonder African Americans are more likely to be union members and more likely to support unions than the population at large. So, as we look at strategies for growing the labor movement, organizing Black workers must be a top priority.
Workers of all races are feeling empowered and emboldened, claiming their seat at the table and inspired to take collective action. And strong public support is the wind at our back. Recent polling demonstrates that unions enjoy sky-high approval ratings, particularly among young people. Growing numbers of people want unions to be stronger and believe they are good for the economy.
As we close out 2023 and look ahead to a new year, the challenge for those of us in the labor movement is to build on this momentum. We must continue standing up to the boss and organizing new workers. We must continue bargaining good contracts and electing pro-worker allies. We must continue, every day, to talk about and demonstrate the power of the union difference.
Lee Saunders is president, American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees (AFSCME).