5 Things podcast: Does an uptick in strikes (UAW, WGA, etc.) mean unions are strengthening?

5 Things podcast: Does an uptick in strikes (UAW, WGA, etc.) mean unions are strengthening?


Dana Taylor
 USA TODAY

On Sunday’s episode of the 5 Things podcast: Work stoppages for actors and writers, the striking auto workers from the UAW, CVS and others make it look like an uptick in strikes could be sustained. According to Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, which tracks strikes of all sizes, there have been more than 270 work stoppages so far this year involving more than 320,000 workers. That’s over 10 times the number of workers who struck in 2021. Why are workers so fed up and could this be the start of a new national movement to strengthen unions? Detroit Free Press and USA TODAY Labor Relations Reporter Phoebe Wall Howard joins the 5 Things podcast to share what she’s hearing from people on the picket lines.  

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Hit play on the player above to hear the podcast and follow along with the transcript below.  This transcript was automatically generated, and then edited for clarity in its current form. There may be some differences between the audio and the text.

Dana Taylor:

Hello and welcome to 5 Things. I’m Dana Taylor. Today is Sunday, October 1st, 2023.

High profile strikes in Hollywood earned this summer the title, ‘Hot Strike Summer’. Add to those work stoppages the striking auto workers from the UAW, and it starts to look like an uptick in strikes might be sustained. According to Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations, which tracks strikes of all sizes, there have been more than 270 work stoppages so far this year involving more than 320,000 workers compared with only 116 strikes and 27,000 workers over the same period in 2021. Why are workers so fed up and could this be the start of a new national movement to strengthen unions? I’m joined by Detroit Free Press and USA Today Labor relations reporter, Phoebe Wall Howard. Phoebe, thanks for joining me.

Phoebe Wall Howard:

Thank you so much.

Dana Taylor:

Well ask Americans for a word that describes the state of the economy in their lives and you’ll hear a catalog of woes, horrible, chaotic, sad, struggling, scary. In a new Suffolk University, Sawyer Business School, USA Today poll three of four people volunteered words that reflected worry and worse. Economists meanwhile have been admiring the strong job market and the soft landing that has eased inflation without tipping into a recession, but the view from the kitchen table is considerably less rosy. How would you characterize the economy from your perspective of striking auto workers?

Phoebe Wall Howard:

From a strike line perspective, the auto workers feel as if they haven’t had a fair wage and a fair shake since the last economic downturn. They made extreme concessions to help the automakers make it through that tough time. And what we’re finding out from economists is that really everybody has not seen much movement in 20 years. This is not just auto workers, this is everyone in the whole economy globally. But there is a crescendo now with workers really seeing things and feeling things and taking action. So you’re seeing a cumulative effect, and that’s why we’re seeing so many strikes and gathering steam and getting good contracts for hourly workers.

Dana Taylor:

Well some critics of the strikes have suggested that their actions are having a negative ripple effect on the economy. What’s your take on that?

Phoebe Wall Howard:

It’s a very serious situation when the UAW shuts down not only auto plants that make the vehicles, but the latest strike action is very serious because it’s the parts plants. So this is where auto dealers get parts to repair your vehicles, and whether that’s a police vehicle, an ambulance, or the vehicle in your driveway that isn’t working. This is a hard hit strategic shutdown where the UAW decided not to close everything, but to pick the areas that make the automakers the most vulnerable. And they have done so, it has had an effect on the economy. And this is very serious, everyone wants it to end quickly.

Dana Taylor:

Well UAW or United Auto Workers went on strike against General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis, which owns Chrysler, Jeep, and Ram. Only about 18,000 union members went on strike, though. What’s the strategy there?

Phoebe Wall Howard:

The strategy is very different than years past. The UAW has always negotiated with one Detroit three company, so either General Motors, Ford, or Chrysler say. In this one, the UAW said, we are going to attack this on all fronts. This is unprecedented. The idea is to create chaos and uncertainty so that the automakers must negotiate as quickly and efficiently as possible. By targeting individual sites unexpectedly the first one, when the contract expired, a week later, two of the three automakers were targeted because the UAW said they didn’t feel they were bargaining in good faith. So this is very different, very unusual, much more a strategic political campaign than an old-fashioned labor campaign. This is far more aggressive.

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Dana Taylor:

Well as you’ve reported, the UAW has members beyond auto industry laborers. Who are the non-auto workers in the UAW and how many are there?

Phoebe Wall Howard:

Not quite half of the UAW is outside the auto industry. And what’s fascinating is people don’t realize we’re talking about engineers, lawyers, medical researchers. I’ve interviewed people who are seeking cures for Parkinson’s and cancer. So these are groups, particularly in academia. You’ve got the West Coast University of California and the East Coast, Cornell, Harvard, Boston College, Columbia University, all these different schools want protections in the workplace, whether it has to do with family leave, sexual harassment, and negotiating contracts. When I’ve said, “why would you join the UAW?” The outside auto industry workers say to me, “they’re known for good contracts that protect workers”. What happens is their money, their dues, now fund the strike fund that support auto workers. So when you’re diversified, if you have strikes at the University of California, as happened in December, their $500 a week strike pay is supported by auto workers. Now, the auto worker strike pay is supported by people in academia. So we’re also talking about casino dealers, people who make beer, but the UAW is far greater than just the auto industry.

Dana Taylor:

CEO pay is under fire. One example, the CEO of General Motors, who says that 92% of her pay is based on company performance makes about 362 times the median GM employee’s salary. Why is CEO pay such a point of contention with hourly workers?

Phoebe Wall Howard:

So the union is saying, if we’re building the products that are creating multimillion dollar bonuses and these bonuses and packages, they’re saying the CEOs are getting 40% increases. What’s happening to the laborers who are creating those profits? If you did 40% increase on an hourly worker, of course it would be significantly less. What’s notable now, of course, is that the Detroit three CEOs earn significantly more than their competitors who sell more. Toyota is an example. The CEO of Toyota earns approximately one third the pay package of General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis. Again, that’s the whole package, not the salary. But the competitors are paying significantly less to their executives than the Detroit three, and that is a point of contention.

Dana Taylor:

Well technological advancements have been a big part of the back and forth between companies and striking employees. For Hollywood, the sticking point is AI. For automakers, it’s the switch to electric vehicles, which need fewer parts. How does industry balance technical innovation with keeping people employed?

Phoebe Wall Howard:

Moving to electrical vehicles obviously does reduce significantly the parts involved. You have new jobs and they’re more skilled. So while it may be fewer individuals, these people need more education and training and also in different kinds of jobs. Because the automakers were contracting things out before COVID and after the pandemic hit, they realized we need to have more control over our supply chain. So they’re bringing those jobs back in-house.

Dana Taylor:

Well UPS nearly avoided having its more than 300,000 workers strike back in August. Those negotiations hung on the issues of better wages and working conditions. What other kinds of issues have been at the heart of the tough negotiations we’ve seen this year?

Phoebe Wall Howard:

We’re talking about auto workers wanting to eliminate what’s called tier wages. Where you have two employees working next to each other, earning different pay scales. I interviewed two workers, they worked side by side. One worked there nine years, another 17 years to achieve the top wage. That’s a big issue. Also, eliminating temporary workers. This was brought on during the downturn to help automakers, give them flexibility, but the UAW feels as if that’s been exploited. So these are people who may work six days a week, nine hours a day. They get significantly fewer benefits and pay under $16 an hour. So this is stuff that the UAW is trying to advocate what they call equal pay for equal work. Instead of having all this differentiation.

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Dana Taylor:

Well the pandemic overhauled everybody’s perspective on work. For white collar workers that led to the great resignation. For blue collar workers it made them reevaluate their life’s value in light of their loyalty working during a deadly pandemic. How did the pandemic impact union workers?

Phoebe Wall Howard:

What I hear on the strike line, and in fact UAW President Shawn Fain has said consistently is what the pandemic did is it caused people to reevaluate their value and reevaluate the time needed to spend with family and loved ones. But this is where individual workers are saying, ‘I’m looking at my life value differently, and that means my hourly wage and what I’m worth’. So in some ways, it’s sort of changed things from an existential perspective. It’s pretty deep. When you talk to people on the line, they talk about losing people and changing how they think about life.

Dana Taylor:

That more than 7,000 nurses went on a successful three-day strike in New York City earlier this year, and I wanted to know what the message from frontline workers across the board, the essential workers who got us through the pandemic, what that message was.

Phoebe Wall Howard:

No question. You’ve got workers saying, ‘we gave our part. We believe in this country, we help the economy’. But at this time, they want payback. They point consistently to huge record profits and frankly, executive wages overall, not just the CEO. So there is incredible imbalance. One of the economists I interviewed said, “you know in the 1960s, executives made a bunch of money, but they didn’t make money like they make today”. Everyone did fine. In Europe, it is not tolerated. In Asia, it is not tolerated. But in the US this great disparity between the top and the bottom somehow is tolerated. So union activists are attacking that.

Dana Taylor:

Well in Hollywood, both the Writer’s Guild and Screen Actors Guild went on strike this summer. The last time they were both on the picket line at the same time was in 1963. Is there anything else that makes the strikes we’ve seen this year unusual?

Phoebe Wall Howard:

What we hear consistently is a sense of unity and support. So overall people will say, “if I can help my brother or sister, that helps me”. It puts more money in the small businesses, the restaurants, the clothing stores, these are not people. If they get pay raises, are going to throw it into an overseas slush fund or investment portfolio necessarily. They’re going to spend it on auto repairs. They’re going to buy cars. It seems that there’s a thread running through society now where people are reexamining their purpose, reexamining the role of work. And what’s happening is the desire to strike, organize, and support one another is snowballing.

Dana Taylor:

According to the Economic Policy Institute, Union membership was at its highest in 1945, just after World War II was ending, the percentage of national workers represented by Union today is down to about 10%. Yet public support for labor unions is at its highest since 1965 with over two thirds of Americans supporting them. Unions are proven to reduce income inequality and get workers better wages and benefits. Is it possible we’ll see a resurgence?

Phoebe Wall Howard:

I think that we will see a resurgence. We are, it’s a steady growth and it’s continuing. The amount of organizing that we’re seeing inside the automotive industry and manufacturing and outside with areas like Starbucks and Amazon and others. This is something we’re monitoring very, very closely. The public is seeing that when you are not unionized, sometimes employers can take advantage. That is the perception, and people say it’s time to grow everybody’s wages. Everything sort of has been stagnant over the past two decades and now people say it is time, not just executive wages in the US but for everyone. A little bit more like Europe and Asia, frankly.

Dana Taylor:

All right Phoebe, thank you so much for joining us.

Phoebe Wall Howard:

Thank you so much for including me in this conversation.

Dana Taylor:

Thanks to our senior producer Shannon Rae Green for production assistance. Our executive producer is Laura Beatty. Let us know what you think of this episode by sending a note to [email protected]. Thanks for listening. I’m Dana Taylor. Taylor Wilson will be back tomorrow morning with another episode of 5 Things.

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