Union Summer

by Liam Dunne '26 on November 12, 2023
News Co-Editor


Despite the record temperatures America has experienced this summer, numerous workers guilds faced the heat head-on in a nationwide resurgence of labor strikes and union movements. Some unions have already succeeded in securing agreements for their workers, others are working towards tentative agreements, and still more have only recently started facilitating strikes. Union membership has been declining for decades, but these strikes and consequent pro-worker agreements may signify a change in this trend. 

Unions have played a crucial role in shaping life in America. Things like the weekend, paid sick/familial leave, a 40-hour work week, retirement, an end to child labor, benefits like health insurance coverage, and more can be attributed to unions. Union membership peaked in 1956 at 33.2 percent, with a corresponding 36 percent of income going towards the top 10 percent of Americans. During this time period, the ratio of CEO to worker pay was about 20:1. Membership has declined significantly since then, especially following the Reagan administration, which held office throughout nearly the entire decade of the 1980s. Alongside this decline has come a 940 percent increase in CEO pay, accompanied by a mere 12 percent increase in worker pay. Reagan’s neoliberal economic policy, popularly monikered “Reaganomics,” severed corporate taxation and began a brutal campaign to crush worker unionization efforts. Reagan’s policies tripled the national debt, and at the end of his presidency, union membership had decreased from its peak by 16 percent. In 1989, the ratio of CEO to worker pay was 58:1. Today, 10.1 percent of the labor force is unionized, and the ratio of CEO to worker pay is 399:1. The bottom 50 percent of the country own 2.4 percent of the wealth. The Economic Policy Institute has verified a causal relationship in union membership and the wealth gap in our country: as union membership declines, the wealth gap drastically increases. 

Hoping to catalyze a reversal of these dire statistics, unions like the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, who represent UPS workers and employees of various industries and firms, have already settled on some monumental agreements. This summer, UPS workers threatened a nationwide strike, with some demonstrations planned to occur in Providence. With the help of the Teamsters, UPS workers signed a deal that guaranteed a $7.50 hourly wage increase for its current employees over a five year term, as well as raising the maximum wages from $42 to $49 for full-time workers and from $17 to $21 for part-time workers. 

The Service Employees International Union has also made headlines by pressuring the California legislature to pass an incredibly rare form of unionization in the United States: sectoral bargaining. This is a practice common in Europe, and the American model approximates it through government. Generally, sectoral bargaining involves a conglomerate of workers in a given industry directly negotiating their pay with employers. In California’s case, the government has formed a council to regulate the fast-food industry in the state. As a result, fast-food companies will be forced to pay their employees $6.50 more than the minimum wage, which is $15.50. The council also regulates health, safety, and anti-discriminatory regulations and their bill includes a cost-of-living adjustment if the wage-floor increases by 2024. This legislature may inspire true sectoral bargaining initiatives among workers in America. 

Another popular strike that has dominated news headlines in recent months has been the SAG-AFTRA union movement. This union is composed of television and movie actors, and many Hollywood stars participated in the strike. Contrary to popular belief, SAG-AFTRA members make an average of $46,000. The lower quartile average is $30,000, which is the American poverty line. Inspiring a chain of worker activism, WGA, which is the screenwriting guild, and video game developers have also gone on strike. Ironically, the last time SAG-AFTRA stood at the picket line they were led by Reagan. No agreement has been made for SAG-AFTRA, who have been on strike for over two months. Meanwhile, the writer’s guild came to a tentative agreement with the film industry yesterday. 

On Tuesday, President Joe Biden attended the United Auto Workers strike, offering words of solidarity and encouragement. Joe Biden is the first president in American history to stand with union workers on a picket-line. The President said that he supported their proposed 40 percent wage increase, and to “stick with it.” This wage increase is relative to the amount Stellantis, Ford, and General Motors have increased the pay of their CEOs. These three companies are the target of the UAW strike, which began on Sept. 14. 

With clear evidence correlating declining union membership with an increase in the wealth gap, perhaps this new trend in unionization efforts will help to quell the rising wealth inequality Americans experience at an increasing rate.