5 big questions about the ‘summer of strikes’

(The Hill) – A tentative deal reached between UPS and its Teamsters-affiliated employees Tuesday has put new focus on unionization efforts and labor policy across corporate America and on Capitol Hill.

Surging labor activity across the U.S. is laying the groundwork for the “summer of strikes,” as hundreds of thousands of workers are prepared to hit the picket line.

After more than two years of rising prices and corporate profits, workers across major industries are taking a stand for better compensation and working conditions.

In recovery from the pandemic and as a result of high inflation, companies have been raking in record profits (including UPS, which made $11.5 billion in net income in 2022). Yet, as the costs of housing and goods rise, wages haven’t kept up for most workers. Unionized workers are now calling for what they feel is their fair share.

Here are five big questions about the strike underway and those that could be coming.

Meredith Stiehm, left, president of Writers Guild of America West, and Fran Drescher, president of SAG-AFTRA, take part in a rally by striking writers outside Paramount Pictures studio in Los Angeles on May 8, 2023.
Meredith Stiehm, left, president of Writers Guild of America West, and Fran Drescher, president of SAG-AFTRA, take part in a rally by striking writers on May 8 outside Paramount Pictures studio in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

Who is on strike now?

The exit of three “Oppenheimer” stars from the film’s London premiere on July 13 marked the beginning of a strike by the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), following failed last-minute negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). 

SAG-AFTRA joined the Writers Guild of America, which had been on strike since May, marking their first simultaneous strikes since 1960. 

Thousands of unionized workers may be close behind.

United Auto Workers members walk in the Labor Day parade in Detroit in 2019. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Who is threatening to strike?

The United Auto Workers (UAW) kicked off negotiations with the Big Three automakers this week to secure a contract before their Sept. 14 deadline. However, UAW president Shawn Fain has said that auto workers should be “ready to strike” to attain larger concessions from General Motors (GM), Stellantis and Ford. 

UAW Secretary-Treasurer Margaret Mock echoed Fain’s sentiments, saying that the union is financially ready to strike if need be.

“Our strike fund is very healthy. We are going strong into these talks, and in the event of a potential strike, we’ll be ready,” Mock told workers during a Wednesday meeting. 

“We feel good about being able to take care of our members’ needs,” she continued.

American Airlines flight attendants also announced last Tuesday they will be holding a strike authorization vote from July 28 to Aug. 29. This comes after American Airlines pilots authorized a strike in May and reached a tentative agreement. The pilots, however, are reconsidering after United Airlines pilots secured an agreement with better pay. 

In what has been deemed by some to be the “summer of strikes,” other unions and movements, like the Fight for $15 — which advocates for a $15 federal minimum wage — are taking advantage of the moment and momentum.

“Hollywood’s actors and writers, along with hospitality workers across Los Angeles, have shown the world the power that comes from uniting across an industry to make demands for better pay and working conditions,” Angelica Hernandez, a member of California’s Fight for $15 steering committee, told LAist.

“Fast-food workers are thinking big too — uniting across LA and California to demand a seat at the table with global corporations like McDonald’s to find solutions to the low pay, violence and harassment and more plaguing the industry.”

While other labor battles are heating up, the possibility of a Broadway strike is decreasing. A tentative agreement between the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) and management was reached Thursday, just after a strike authorization vote, though the agreement will still need to be ratified by union members.

UPS workers “practice picket” at Teamsters Local 804 on July 6 outside of a UPS facility in Brooklyn, N.Y. (AP Photo/Brittainy Newman)

What do workers want?

The actors of SAG-AFTRA are striking for higher wages and better compensation for streaming shows and movies. They are also hoping to secure regulations on the use of artificial intelligence without an actor’s consent. 

The Writers Guild of America, likewise, is seeking better pay for writers along with safeguards concerning the use of AI to write scripts.

UAW workers are hoping to ride the wave of progress, or at least insulate themselves from potential layoffs driven by the emerging electric vehicle market. They are also fighting to end pay tiers and to restore cost of living adjustments and fair pay.

According to a UAW strike support letter, Ford, GM and Stellantis made $250 billion in North American profits over the last 10 years. Workers claim they haven’t gotten their fair share. 

Teamsters feel the same way, as they fight with UPS over wages, benefits, workplace protections and compensation for workers. The union previously secured commitments from UPS to end a dual-tier wage system and forced overtime on workers’ days off. 

American Airlines flight attendants are similarly bargaining for a one-time 35% wage increase, a 6% annual raise and increased benefits. Federal mediators have been called on to assist in finding a compromise with the airline. If no deal is reached and a strike is authorized, the union could strike after 30 days.

Striking hotel workers rally outside The L.A. Grand Hotel Downtown, Tuesday, July 4, 2023, in downtown Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
Striking hotel workers rally outside The L.A. Grand Hotel Downtown on July 4 in downtown Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

How are businesses responding?

Jodi Tinson, senior manager for North America media relations and content at Stellantis, said they have a “long history” of working together and intend to continue that partnership with UAW.

“Our focus will be on negotiating a contract that will ensure our future competitiveness in today’s rapidly changing global market and preserve good wages and benefits that recognize the contributions of our represented workforce,” Tinson said. 

“Together, we must approach these negotiations with open minds and a willingness to roll up our sleeves to find solutions that will result in a contract that is competitive in the market, provides a path to the middle class for our employees and meets the needs of our customers.”

Ford and GM have yet to respond to requests for comment.

The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers — which represents studios and production companies such as Netflix, NBCUniversal and Paramount/CBS — did not echo similar sentiments in response to the SAG-AFTRA strike.

“A strike is certainly not the outcome we hoped for as studios cannot operate without the performers that bring our TV shows and films to life,” wrote AMPTP in their response to the strike. 

“The Union has regrettably chosen a path that will lead to financial hardship for countless thousands of people who depend on the industry.”

UPS, on the other hand, is taking action, training nonunion workers to avoid a labor disruption should the Teamsters go on strike.

Who could be affected by these strikes?

Though the SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes will only impact union members working in film and TV studios, it has also impacted the content available for consumption. 

Many late-night shows have gone on hiatus, and series like “Euphoria” and “Stranger Things” have delayed production until an agreement is reached.

Although UPS told The Hill it has “contingency plans” in place for both its products and potentially striking workers, a strike by Teamsters is likely to delay packages, prompt higher shipping costs from other companies or create a supply chain disruption similar to the pandemic, according to Jonathan Gold, vice president of supply chain and customs policy at the National Retail Federation.

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