The year of strikes ain’t over yet

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2023 has had the most major labor strikes the country has seen in decades, with likely more to come. Unions leaders are itching to do it.

Walkouts have happened at UPS, at the Detroit Big three automakers (Ford, GM and Stellantis, successor to Chrysler), at Kaiser Permanente and at American Airlines. Hollywood actors and writers have struck too (the latter dispute has been resolved), and among service workers in Las Vegas. The Wall Street Journal reports that seven million work days have been lost this year due to employees walking out.

The unions are doing it because the labor market remains exceptionally tight, with unemployment currently at 3.7%, near its all-time low. Employers in some cases are struggling to hire and are afraid to lose the workers they have. That gives unions an edge in contract negotiations. Many have decided they’re going to use it.

What’s more, UPS’s recent capitulation to the International Brotherhood of Teamsters’ demands has sent a signal to union leaders that strikes are a winning strategy. Workers have the upper hand, so the thinking goes. Time to hit management hard. That’s not good news for the rest of us who’ll be hit with more disruptions of services and higher prices due to ballooning labor costs.

It’s a sharp reversal from last year when the Biden administration stepped in to force a contract on railroad workers who had threatened to strike. The administration was afraid then that a strike could cause another supply chain crisis as the national economy was still struggling to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Unions, traditionally Democratic Party allies, weren’t happy with that intervention. The White House has been at pains ever since to say it is on the unions’ side. President Joe Biden even briefly joined the UAW picket line.

That is bad news for management. The administration is the one major player with both the clout to keep unions from going too far and a rationale for using that clout: to keep them from hurting the broader economy through rapidly rising labor costs.

However, the administration is in a rocky position. Biden’s age and growing infirmity are increasing the muttering that the party needs a younger candidate. Biden therefore needs to keep allies happy and not cross them.

That could hurt Biden in the longer run if the unions get too rowdy and tie the economy in knots, but the administration isn’t thinking that long term. It is focused on the here and now. Biden went to picket with the UAW members because he needed the photo op. Never mind that the union’s main demand is that the automakers shield them from the consequences of switching over the EV vehicles, which will require less labor.

It’s a switch that Biden was instrumental in pushing the automakers to adopt. If the administration were in a stronger position, it would not be giving the UAW slack to potentially undermine that transition.

Other union leaders are assuredly watching and taking notes. They know the current tight labor market cannot last indefinitely and the current administration won’t always be so pliable.

Also, labor leaders themselves romanticize the idea of strikes. They’re the historic moments that are talked about years later, the ones that show that so-and-so was a crusader for the cause. If they don’t start picketing now, they might miss their big moment.