Writers. Auto workers. Pharmacists. It seems every week this year has brought a new strike, with a rise in labor actions across the country and across a range of industries. These actions are a response to long-term trends in the workplace.
What Is A Labor Strike?
A strike is an action taken by a group of employees who stop working in an attempt to pressure their employer into meeting their demands. Striking enables workers to collectively bargain for better working conditions or compensation and pressure companies to address their grievances by impacting the company’s bottom line.
Unhappy with working conditions, compensation or the trajectory they see ahead of them, workers have come together to walk the picket lines until they feel their demands are fairly met. Unless employers work to understand employee concerns, including fair compensation, address them at the root level and move forward together with employees, these concerns will only continue and labor strikes will become more frequent.
What Led to the Summer of Strikes
This wave has been a long time coming. The decade leading up to 2020 created a perfect storm for labor action, with a slow-to-recover global economy following the 2007-8 financial crisis. Workers began organizing at a lower level, most notably with fast food employees uniting around the Fight For $15 in 2012.
As discontent with working conditions grew, employees watched top executives’ compensation grow as they watched their own wages inch up or merely stay flat. Workers have not seen any wage growth for two years, due to inflation pushing up the cost of living. Meanwhile, the average CEO now makes 399 percent more than their average employee.
When the global pandemic hit, workers saw what companies can accomplish when motivated. Desperate to stay operational, businesses told everyone to stay home for the foreseeable future — just keep working from home. Workers, especially those with children, quickly grew used to the benefits of WFH. The 65.7 million Americans serving as family caregivers welcomed the reprieve.
While companies implemented work from home policies seemingly overnight, the return to office push has felt just as rapid. However, workers are pushing back, and employers who push too hard risk a repeat of the Great Resignation or resurgence of quiet quitting.
The public WFH fight has dovetailed with a broader disconnect between employees and their employers. Technological advances that enabled working from home were seen as a benefit. Now, workers are concerned about what the rapid growth of artificial intelligence means for their jobs.
The WGA Strike
Into this maelstrom, the Writers Guild of America voted to strike in April of this year and began its strike May 2. The reasons were much aligned with what we have mentioned above. The pandemic cancellations of movie openings affected members of the WGA. The growth of streaming platforms in the last decade, which skyrocketed during the pandemic, has similarly harmed WGA compensation, as writers are not paid as much for content viewed on streaming services.
The rise of artificial intelligence such as ChatGPT also concerned WGA members, and they wanted guarantees to protect their jobs. After striking for 148 days, WGA members voted to accept the new contract they had negotiated.
The UAW Strike
While the WGA went on strike largely due to concerns exacerbated by the pandemic, the United Auto Workers this year went on strike in part to address concerns stretching all the way back to the financial collapse of 2007-8.
On Aug. 27, the UAW’s 145,000 members voted to strike, a vote they sought to use to leverage a better contract without a full labor stoppage. This tactic had been used to great effect earlier this year by the Teamsters Union, but the UAW could not similarly turn the threat of a strike into a new contract. Labor action began Sept. 14. For the first time in history, the strike occurred against all of the Big Three automakers, with workers dropping tools at Ford, General Motors and Stellantis. They seek wage increases to reverse the post-2007 wage cuts, cost of living adjustments to ensure inflation does not erode wage growth and protection from foreign competition.
Workers are watching an economy that seems to be leaving them behind.
Again, these trends existed long before the pandemic and will continue well into the future. While some have called the wage demands audacious, the president of the UAW argues they are justified. Significant pay raises for executives demonstrate their return to health, and UAW strikers simply want the same pay raise that CEOs have received.
Workers are watching an economy that seems to be leaving them behind. Global trends and technological advances risk leaving them behind, so they have gone on strike to prevent it.
Preparing for Workplace Realities of the Future
In a boom and bust economy, especially in one where technological advances threaten the jobs of many workers, employees are organizing to protect their jobs and to demand adequate compensation. Employers have a simple solution: Pay employees more. Treat them as human beings.
If workers do not feel they are being compensated fairly, they will take action. At a time of record profits across many industries, at a time when the pandemic created unprecedented wealth growth for those at the top while causing great harm to those at the bottom, workers are asking for their piece of the pie to be a fair size.
The greatest way employers can show appreciation for their employees is the same way they have long shown appreciation for shareholders and executives — show them the money. Wage and salary increases are the root of most labor activity. By acknowledging that, employers can demonstrate to employees that they truly see what employees are dealing with, want to address it, and then move forward from a place of trust to address remaining employee concerns.
WGA workers were not being fairly compensated with payments for content on streaming platforms. As revenue streams moved to streaming services companies did not share those profits with the writers whose work they were streaming — a factor they were able to successfully negotiate when they went on strike. UAW workers have watched profits soar alongside CEO pay, while hourly workers have seen nearly all of their wage growth eliminated by inflation.
However, wage concerns are not limited to these headline topping labor actions. Amazon workers, whose labor earned profits so vast they literally launched Amazon’s founder and CEO into space, have been trying to organize for years. Starbucks and Trader Joe’s workers have also sought to organize for safer working conditions and wage increases.
They were lauded as essential workers during the pandemic, they know their worth and are organizing to get what they deserve. Without the protections afforded to union members, these employees, like those organizing for the Fight For $15 before them, have been met with store closures, layoffs, firings and benefits reductions.
Show Workers You Care
Employers must realize the strain workers have been under in recent years. They must rebuild trust by making sure employees know employers only see that strain and are working to alleviate it. By building trust and truly focusing on employee well-being, employers can become allies with employees against the problems that have been building for over a decade.
Study after study shows the link between employee well-being and worker productivity. Just as technology enabled work from home during the pandemic, so can technology advances in AI and automation are threatening jobs. Just as increased connectivity has increased employee stress by inducing that always-on feeling, so can technology can be used to track and understand employee stress and well-being.
If business leaders don’t bring in workers and labor leaders as allies in that vision and work with them to provide employees with the resources and compensation necessary to keep pace with a changing global economy, then 2023 will not be seen as a record year in labor activity. It will be seen as the beginning of a new era of fraught labor relations and ever-increasing strike activity.