It’s not just the actors—workers across the economy are demanding better pay and safer jobs
Celebrities like Fran Drescher got a lot of media attention last week when they went on strike. The 160,000+ members of the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) joined 11,000 already striking film and television writers in the first industrywide shutdown in 63 years.
But it is not just actors—workers across the economy are either walking a picket line or preparing for labor actions later this summer. This has led many to wonder: Why do so many workers feel their only option this summer is to strike?
To us, the real question is: Why didn’t we see more of these actions sooner? For decades, the U.S. economy has been churning out radically unequal incomes. Further, essentially all of this increased inequality has come from unbalanced bargaining power in the labor market. Profit margins have increased at the expense of typical workers’ wages, and only the pay of the most highly privileged workers—corporate managers and executives and a select slice of other highly credentialed professionals—has managed to grow as fast as overall economic growth. The overwhelming majority of U.S. workers have not seen their wages grow at pace with their employers’ profits or executive pay scales.
Some earlier rumblings of labor activism were delayed by the COVID-19 shock to the economy, but seem to be returning now. In the years before the COVID-19 pandemic (particularly 2018 and 2019), major work stoppages hit their highest levels in decades. After subsiding in 2020 and 2021, major work stoppages grew by nearly 50% in 2022. There is anecdotal evidence that 2023 will continue this trend, with the members of the Teamsters union representing more than 340,000 workers at the nation’s largest delivery service voting overwhelmingly (97%) to authorize a strike on August 1 if there is not agreement reached with the United Parcel Service (UPS).
Anemic wage growth is only part of workers’ motivation for unionizing and striking. This has been coupled with an erosion of worker protections.
Shrinking budgets at the Department of Labor and state agencies tasked with protecting workers’ rights have led to limited or nonexistent enforcement and enabled corporations to violate workers’ rights—including basic health and safety protections—with impunity.
Further, corporations have exploited and expanded loopholes in labor law, making it harder and harder for workers to win a union and a union contract. As a result, many workers are employed in low-wage jobs and are required to risk their health and safety for those jobs.
All the while corporate practices aimed at limiting labor costs further eat away at worker power in a race to the bottom for job standards. The worst of corporate practices are increasingly setting the standards for industries. Strikes are often the only tool workers have to push back against this trend and demand their fair share of income.
If the Teamsters are forced to strike at UPS, it will be a clear example of this trend. Revenue at UPS was over $100 billion in 2022, and its profits grew even faster than revenue in recent years. While wages are a central part of the negotiations, the union is also focused on a host of other issues related to health and safety and wants to protect union logistic warehouse and package delivery jobs—that come with higher pay and good benefits—from being eroded by expanded use of temporary drivers.
Like many other industries, warehouse and delivery work has been impacted by the practices of corporate behemoths like Amazon, which uses personal vehicle delivery drivers in its services. There is a wealth of evidence of the extremes Amazon pushes its delivery drivers to in order to meet delivery quotas. If the Teamsters strike, it will be in part to try and fight the effects of Amazon’s business practices on the industry and prevent a company that routinely violates worker health and safety laws from setting the industry standard for all workers.
The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the reality of work for millions of workers in this country. Workers are routinely forced to work in unsafe conditions, risking their health and safety for a job—one that far too often pays a low wage and offers few, if any, benefits.
Companies like UPS and the Hollywood studios have pointed to the fact that they pay relatively higher wages than other employers. That is what these companies don’t seem to understand—that is the point. These long-held union jobs have been hard won by workers. Contract after contract Teamsters workers have sought to protect and preserve what are now among the only decent jobs in the warehouse and delivery industry.
These strikes are about protecting family-sustaining jobs from the erosion of workplace standards in these industries. The unions are fighting for their very existence and for the existence of jobs that are safe and provide a decent wage and benefits. That is a fight we all have a stake in.
Given this, we don’t have to stay on the sidelines:
- We can stand with striking workers who delivered sustaining supplies to our families during the height of the pandemic.
- We can stand with striking workers who kept our families entertained and provided a much-needed reprieve from the reality of the pandemic.
- We can stop ordering items that must be delivered by 10 p.m. the same day. Consumers should recognize the human cost to that dynamic and the role they play in its growth.
- We can support the retailers that are sticking with the Teamsters even in the face of a strike.
Striking workers in this country have severely limited rights and few protections. They need public support. We should all see these work stoppages as an opportunity to show that unions can carve out more equal economic outcomes—even when they are being hindered by policymakers’ failure to modernize labor law to keep playing fields level. If policymakers ever do change the laws to give workers across the economy a genuine chance to organize and bargain collectively with their employers, we might actually achieve an economy in which workers see their wages grow at the same pace as their employers’ profits and executive pay—and no worker is forced into an unsafe job.
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