ADaily, we read press reports on union resurgence, particularly in California. In southern California, working people, many of whom are immigrants and people of color, have become the vanguard of the American labor movement. About half of big strikes this year took in California.
In early July, 15,000 members of Unite Here Local 11– cooks, room attendants, dishwashers, servers, bellmen, and front-desk agents (workers often invisible to hotel guests), walked out at hotels
in Los Angeles and Orange counties.
Unite Here, negotiating since April, is pushing for higher pay – a $5 immediate hourly increase and a $3 boost annually for three years. For Unite Here members, the high cost of living in the LA area has forced them to live increasingly further from their workplaces, saddling them with hours-long, expensive commutes, exacerbated by lack of public transit and high gas prices. (Both endemic to capitalism.)
Demand for contractual benefits to subsidize workers’ housing costs have been rejected by hotel management, which has charged Unite Here with exceeding “accepted boundaries” of contract negotiations, which is what the owning class cried when major CIO industrial unions were organized in the 1930s.
The University of California system suffered the largest higher education strike in US history. In mid-November, 36,000 graduate student workers and 12,000 other academics, disrupted research, and classes across 10 campuses. Even for newly minted UAW organizers, the union representing UC workers, the militancy and breadth of the 6-week work stoppage was a welcome, if not surprising, show of determined collective action. Even though the strike won concessions like increased pay, some negotiators dissented, arguing the agreement did not provide sufficient pay and benefits to members beleaguered by California’s
insane cost of living. Additionally, a substantial portion of the rank and file expressed dissatisfaction and are already looking to the future to increase their 2024 bargaining power.
In a historic year for nurses’ strikes, over 21,000 registered nurses and nurse practitioners at 21 Kaiser Permanente facilities, represented by CA Nurses Association/National Nurses United, held a two-day strike in November to protest the administration’s refusal to address ongoing concerns about workplace health and safety and chronic short staffing. The strike at Kaiser facilities in northern California, registered as one of the biggest private sector nurses strikes in US history.
In an interview for the Peace Press, chief nurse and strike leader Cyndi Krahne commented, “I’m so proud of our nurses. Along with members of our community, they stuck together, were willing to take on the Kaiser system, and focused much of the strike on noneconomic issues like patient care and working conditions.”
Entertainment Workers Shut Down Hollywood
In a seismic stand-off between labor and entertainment moguls, many of whom take home hundreds of millions a year, 160,000 TV and screen actors, after voting 98 percent to strike, joined 11,500 members of the Writers Guild on picket lines. Anger over pay sent both to the streets. The strike is a historic showdown with major implications for the future, which led bargaining to break down over fears of a tech-dominated industry.
Strikers are demanding a greater share of streaming revenues, a technological innovation that has changed the nature of the entertainment business. Moreover, the looming issue of technology has broad implications – screenwriters fear studios will use AI (artificial intelligence) to generate scripts and actors worry that technology could be used to create digital replicas of their likenesses (or that performances could be digitally altered) without compensation or their approval.
The Damocles Sword of AI threatens yet unknown consequences for numerous trades, such as coders/programmers, writers, financial professionals, legal workers, researchers, customer services, data entry and analysis. Over decades, the working class has experienced ‘technological advances” that diminish workers’ pay and eliminate millions and millions of jobs. A lot is riding on the outcome of the battle over AI in the entertainment strike and the resolution may provide a hint of what new technology will mean for broad swaths of workers.
The Great UPS Showdown
What might have turned into the most seismic class confrontation of our generation and the largest strike against a private employer – UPS vs. Teamsters – reached a tentative agreement just days before picket lines went up. In the last election, a reform slate was elected to lead the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, putting to bed any legacy remnants of the Jimmy Hoffa days.
During the last five years, UPS experienced historic growth, nearly doubling annual operating profits from $7.4 billion in 2018 to $13.9 billion in 2022. These soaring profits directly result from Teamsters’ labor, blood, and sweat as workers toiled through the loss of coworkers during the COVID-19 pandemic. And yet, with the inflation rate ballooning exponentially to 8.6% in May, highest in 40 years, Teamsters saw their purchasing power plummet as all US workers struggle to pay for necessities such as housing, food, and gas.
Leading up to contract expiration a newly reinvigorated leadership threw down the gauntlet, making clear that without a contract the rank-and-file would be shutting down UPS. To punctuate the readiness of the union to walk if no acceptable contract was on the table, Teamsters held mass ‘practice pickets’, parking lot rallies and t-shirt days to demonstrate solidarity.
In the words of newly elected reform president O’Brien prior to the tentative agreement, “we call on all rank-and-file UPS Teamsters to take up the task of organizing our fellow workers into a unified force prepared to hit the streets on August 1st for the largest strike against a private employer in US history.”
Seeing the unity and militant determination of the Teamsters’ membership, UPS was confronted with little option but to cave and agree to many of the union demands, setting an example for all workers of what solidarity can accomplish.
The tentative 5-year agreement includes immediate raises for all UPS employees, as well as elimination of a lower paid class of delivery driver and installation of air conditioning units in new delivery vans for the first time. All UPS employees will receive a $2.75 an hour raise this year, and a $7.50 an hour pay increase over the next five years.
Importantly, pay for part-time workers, who make up about half the workforce, will now start at $21 an hour, a notable boost from the current $16.20 an hour starting wage. Additionally, the tentative agreement establishes a Martin Luther King Jr. paid holiday and a ban on driver facing cameras in the truck cabs and restricts forced overtime on drivers’ scheduled days off.
Jonathan Melrod, author of Fighting Times – Organizing On the Front Lines of the Class War, Learn more at jonathanmelrod.com and facebook.com/jonathan.melrod