After a Long Defeat, Labor Is Rising from the Ashes

His voice read despair and his face defeat. He had been beaten down as a vet coming home from Vietnam, and now he and his union were beaten again. 

When, he wondered, are the defeats going to end?

The vet and unionist was slowly taking down a picket station that the United Auto Workers (UAW) had set up in Peoria, Ill., during its heartbreaking battle with Caterpillar. After four years of running strikes from 1991 to 1995, the union had grudgingly accepted the company’s original offer, suffering a deep emotional and organizational wound. 

It was the 1990s and organized labor seemed impaled on a death spiral. The Peoria workers’ despair would spread across blue-collar America, driven by factory closings and crushed expectations of a decent, good-paying job.

Strikes had dwindled. Contracts were riddled with givebacks, paltry wage increases and disappearing benefits. U.S. labor, heaving with discontent over its downward slide, would eventually break into competing factions.

In writing a book about that vet and other workers in 2001, I called the effort ​“Three Strikes.” But I wasn’t counting disputes or walkouts; I was leaning on the baseball metaphor. 

I was asking an existential question. Jobs were fleeing overseas, profit-driven executives helped erase decades of labor rules and protections and many politicians and citizens were ignorant to the plight of workers. 

The question: Was labor fated to go out on strike three? That was the future as I saw it.

But that was then, and now labor may be the phoenix rising from its ashes. 

Consider the signs: Strikes are up. Contract deals are sweeter. And notwithstanding business experts’ warnings about the futility of strikes, especially ones based on unprecedented demands, workers across industries have racked up stunning contract gains. 

Take the Teamsters, for instance. Despite UPS’ plea that it had to conserve money, the Teamsters won a $7.50 per hour pay raise over five years for all of its members, put an end to forced weekend overtime and won air conditioning for new delivery vehicles. 

Not too long after, the UAW scored the largest wage and benefit increases in decades. It canceled out concessions with the automakers in 2008, saved plants slated to close and won a foothold in newly opened electric vehicle battery plants. 

Kaiser Permanente workers won a 21% pay increase over four years. And after a long strike and the entertainment industry’s initial dismissal of the union’s demands as unacceptable and far-fetched, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) won pay increases, improvements to pensions and other benefits and secured protections from the use of artificial intelligence to replace workers. The union valued the annual gains for its three-year contract at $233 million. American Airlines’ 15,000 pilots also recently won jaw-dropping pay raises without going on strike.

Things are far different from when I was writing my book. This time, union leaders fed on their members’ dismay to stage unusually combative, in-your-face contract campaigns that produced results. Rank-and-file Teamsters joined the bargaining, and both the Teamsters and the UAW launched daily media campaigns and loudly voiced their complaints when they didn’t like the companies’ offers. In the late 20th century, bargaining was largely done in secret, and members did not know the details of the contract until it was time for a membership vote.

This is a segment of a blog that originally appeared in full at In These Times on Nov. 17, 2023. Republished with permission.

About the Author: Stephen Franklin is a former labor writer for the Chicago Tribune a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign School of Labor and Employment Relations.

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