2023 Was the Year of the Strike. What Can We Expect in 2024?

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Jenny Brown

Strikes and threats of strikes extracted contracts ranging from good to excellent from employers across the country in 2023. Half a million U.S. workers walked out—machinists, teachers, baristas, nurses, hotel housekeepers, and auto workers—with much of the motion coming from unions led by reformers.

The year started out with a squeaker of an election victory that turned out to be momentous. In late 2022, the Members United slate swept most top offices at the Auto Workers (UAW) on a platform of “No Concessions, No Corruption, No Tiers.” March saw a presidential runoff pitting the old guard incumbent against an obscure Kokomo, Indiana, electrician and union rep named Shawn Fain. Among 140,000 votes cast, Fain won by a few hundred.

“Our job now is to put the members back in the driver’s seat, regain the trust of the rank and file, and put the companies on notice,” he said then. “We are ending give-back unionism and company control in the UAW.”

Nine months later, the union’s Stand-Up Strike has notched sweeping victories against the Big 3, auto workers in non-union plants are hustling to join, public opinion of striking workers is at a several-decade high, and Fain is nearly a household name.

Strike Threat Worked

But the 150,000 Big 3 Auto Workers weren’t even the biggest workgroup to win thanks to new, more militant leadership. The 340,000 Teamsters at UPS notched their biggest contract gains ever by mounting a strike threat that reverberated through truck barns and warehouses across the country. Managers huddled nervously as UPSers marched into work together, galvanized by breakfast meetings and practice pickets.

The union’s new leaders, President Sean O’Brien and Secretary-Treasurer Fred Zuckerman, gave detailed reports on negotiations and bargained down to the wire, while the reform caucus that backed their 2022 election, Teamsters for a Democratic Union, spearheaded a program of shop-floor organizing and pickets. It was a winning combination that netted big wage gains and eliminated a second tier of drivers and a forced sixth workday.

Deep Reform Roots

The change in direction in both the Teamsters and the UAW has roots in reform caucuses who long argued for a struggle, not cuddle, approach to the companies.

In the Teamsters, the groundwork was laid in 1989 when the federal government threatened to take over the union due to corruption. Teamsters for a Democratic Union argued against government control. Instead, they said that democracy in the union—member control—would be the force that would end corruption. In a consent agreement, the union switched to one-member one-vote elections for top leaders, replacing the easily controlled elections held at conventions.

TDU-backed leaders won in 1991, lost in 1998, and won again in 2022, leading to a reinvigorated union, shop-floor mobilization, and the believable strike threat that extracted huge gains from UPS this year.

A similar process, on a compressed timeline, happened at the Auto Workers. In 2019, then-president Gary Jones was removed from office and later pleaded guilty to embezzling union funds. He and his predecessor, Dennis Williams, were convicted and sent to prison along with a dozen others. A new reform caucus, Unite All Workers for Democracy, followed the TDU model, arguing with the feds that the answer to corruption was member control.

No surprise: in a referendum, UAW members voted to switch to a one-member, one-vote system. That set the stage for the UAWD-backed slate, Members United, to surprise everyone by winning the presidency and a majority on the executive board.

Strikes Double

It wasn’t just Teamsters and the UAW, though. The half-million U.S. workers who struck in 2023 doubled the strike number for 2022, which in turn nearly doubled the 2021 number, according to Johnnie Kallas of the Cornell Labor Action Tracker. A similar number struck in 2018 during the “Red for Ed” teacher uprisings, but this year there were many more private-sector strikes, with actors, health care workers, and auto workers leading the way.

Polling showed an uptick in union popularity to levels not seen since the 1960s. Strikes were popular, too: 78 percent supported the auto workers, and 76 percent the actors and writers.

The year started off with a victory for 7,000 New York Nurses (NYSNA)who struck and won strong language to enforce safer staffing levels. Their hospitals now pay big penalties if they don’t keep enough nurses on the floor. Their victory inspired 1,700 nurses in New Jersey, members of the Steelworkers (USW), who have been on strike since August at Robert Wood Johnson hospital in New Brunswick.

In June, 6,000 Machinists at Spirit AeroSystems in Wichita hit the bricks, rejecting an offer their union pushed. They were objecting to 60- and 70-hour weeks. They won their weekends back.

This is a segment of a blog that originally appeared in full at Labor Notes on December 15, 2023.

About the Author: Jenny Brown is an assistant editor at Labor Notes.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.