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Hollywood and auto strikes have workers and unions eager for more gains in 2024

By Alexandra Skores, The Dallas Morning News
Published: January 1, 2024, 6:06am

If 2023 was a historic year for workers with gains in pay and new contracts, how much longer can the momentum last in an economy that can’t decide if it is roaring or trudging along?

From a 148-day Hollywood writers strike to a United Auto Workers walkout to the ongoing contract negotiations from air carriers under contract negotiations, unions found power in 2023 they haven’t had during decades of shrinking union membership and rollbacks in worker pay and benefits.

“It’s been a tremendous, even historic, year for union workers with unprecedented victories,” said Benjamin Sachs, Kestnbaum professor of labor and industry at Harvard University’s Law School.

It’s an even stronger win for overall support of labor unions, according to Gallup. Approval for labor unions hit 67% in 2023 after support fell to an all-time low of 48% in 2009. Researchers believe this trend will continue, lending to a stronger influence among the labor work groups and their respective employers.

Lydia Saad, director of U.S. Social Research at Gallup, said that since 1936 Gallup has asked whether Americans approve or disapprove of labor unions. Approval was fairly strong in the first few decades when union membership was high, but it fell significantly in the 70s and 80s, and all the way through the 90s. Often, Saad said, perceptions of labor unions are affected by economic circumstances.

“When the economy isn’t doing well, people are not as generous in their view of labor unions because there’s some feeling among Americans that (unions) are not helpful to the economy,” Saad said.

Last year, approval peaked at 71% and remains close this year at 67%.

“People paid attention,” Saad said. “They were sympathetic with workers, which is somewhat unusual in the history of our trends.”

Here’s a look at this past year’s union movement and what is to come in the new year.

Large industrywide strikes

It was a “year of strikes,” according to Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of Labor Education Research and senior lecturer at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

“Across every industry from entertainment to logistics to auto to health care to aviation — big strikes are notable because not only were they very large and overwhelming … they had these huge wins,” Bronfenbrenner said.

Hollywood’s actors, all 60,000 members represented by the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, reached a tentative three-year deal in November with executives from top entertainment companies including Disney, Netflix, Warner Bros. Discovery and Universal, who all had a direct hand in negotiations.

The United Auto Workers strike erupted this fall for six weeks among the three big automakers, GM, Ford and Stellantis. There are over 5,000 workers at GM’s Arlington assembly plant who returned to work in October with a generous contract.

“Once again, we have won several astonishing victories. For the past several weeks, analysts and pundits were crying that our union was going too far, that we were demanding too much,” said Shawn Fain, UAW president in October. “We didn’t listen to them, and we never let up. The result is one of the most stunning contract victories since the 1930s.”

According to industry analysts, the negotiations won the workers pay and cost-of-living raises that would top 30% by the time the contracts expire in April 2028. Workers would get an immediate 11% pay bump upon ratification.

“I think what’s happening with the UAW in the aftermath of the strike and all the other strike victories are going to inspire more workers to organize,” Bronfenbrenner said.

Earlier this year, after months of negotiations and threats of a strike that would have shaken the U.S. economy, UPS and the union representing 340,000 UPS workers reached a tentative agreement in July. The five-year agreement raised wages for all workers, created more full-time jobs and included workplace improvements like installing air conditioning in trucks, according to the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

“We’ve seen an increase in organizing activity,” Bronfenbrenner said. “Most of these gains are getting back things that unions have lost.”

Major airline pilot unions make strides

Union leadership at major airlines across the country also were in contract negotiations this year, including Dallas-based Southwest Airlines and Fort Worth-based American Airlines.

For pilots, it was a victory year for receiving contracts upping the industry standard in pay and benefits.

The year started with the announcement of the Delta Air Lines’ pilots deal, where pilots are represented by the Air Line Pilots Association. The deal raised their pay by more than 30% over four years. The union of about 15,000 pilots voted in the contract in March.

In May, American Airlines’ pilots reached an agreement in principle with the air carrier, ahead of the busy travel season. The Allied Pilots Association represents American’s more than 15,000 pilots.

While American had an agreement, then came a deal for Chicago-based United Airlines and its pilots union, the Air Line Pilots Association. United Airlines pilots reached an agreement for a new four-year contract, providing a cumulative increase in total compensation of as much as 40.2% over the life of the agreement, in July.

But United’s deal ultimately made American pilots go briefly back to the bargaining table. In July, the union reached a new tentative agreement with a 21% fully pensionable ratification bonus covering January to July. Part of the new contract was contingent upon the ratification of the United deal, like pilot pay rates increasing to match the United and Delta pay rates.

In August, American’s pilots voted in their deal.

So that leaves Southwest Airlines and its pilots represented by the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association as the only major carrier without a pilot contract yet. The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association represents the over 9,000 pilots at the air carrier. Pilots at Southwest are in mediation for their contract, which became amendable in 2020.

A work in progress

Despite the big progress in 2023, not every union worker is feeling victorious going into the new year.

Unionized flight attendants at major airlines remain without contracts.

At American Airlines, flight attendants represented by the Association of Professional Flight Attendants have been in mediation since June with the air carrier. The union seeks raises of 35%, followed by two yearly increases of 6%. In November, federal mediators rejected the union’s request to be released from mediation, which could have begun a series of steps needed to strike at a commercial airline.

Amber De Roxtra, president for the DFW base of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants said it’s not just about pay raises, but also working conditions.

“I think what we offered is fair,” De Roxtra said at an informational picket in November. “I think what we offer is not greedy by any means. I would like for us to have a resolution.”

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Southwest Airlines ‘ flight attendants rejected a contract after five years at the bargaining table this month. It was the second time this year that a tentative agreement was shot down. In June, the union’s executive board voted down a tentative contract, leaving the airline and union in mediation until an agreement was reached. Southwest’s more than 20,000 flight attendants are represented by Transport Workers Union Local 556.

“After five long years of negotiations, which have included fighting both pay cuts and furloughs, enduring historic operational failures, and working without raises to combat inflation or compensate for the extensive duties our members have to perform, the flight attendants of Southwest Airlines have made it clear that this proposed contract is not going to heal the hurt,” said Lyn Montgomery, president of TWU Local 556, in an email this month.

Starbucks workers, represented by Starbucks Workers United, organized union strikes this year, including three Starbucks stores in Denton that refused to work on Red Cup Day, an annual promotional holiday for the Seattle-based chain. According to CNBC, the company said it wants to resume contract talks in January.

Meanwhile, there have been reports of Amazon employees being disciplined for organizing. One employee was laid off, according to The New York Times , after he was suspended for “violating the company’s off-duty access policy,” which doesn’t allow workers inside Amazon buildings or in outdoor work areas when they’re not working. The employee said that he was on-site while off the clock to build support for a walkout, actions that are protected by law.

“There was enormous momentum,” Sachs, of Harvard’s Law School, said. “There were union organizing victories — and there are no bargaining agreements. I think that’s a less optimistic story, but it’s an important part of the story.”

However, experts attribute the strong momentum to mature collective bargaining relationships, ultimately producing results for unions and their employers alike.

“It was an extraordinary year and it was definitely a moment in history,” Bronfenbrenner said. “How long it lasts is another question, but the labor stood up.”

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