4 things to know on Labor Day — from the Hot Labor Summer to the Hollywood strikes

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WASHINGTON (NPR) — This Labor Day, one thing’s for sure: Organized labor is on the move.

Unions have already notched some big wins this year, including at UPS — and they are looking for more, with writers and actors striking in Hollywood and the United Auto Workers union playing hardball in contract negotiations with the Big 3 automakers.

And now, organized labor feels like they have their winds at their back. A tight job market has given workers increased bargaining power, polls show public support for unions is high, and the Biden administration is on their side.

There are big obstacles though. Unionizing efforts face stiff opposition from many employers and there’s still considerable uncertainty about the economic outlook.

Here are four things to know about the state of the labor market on Labor Day.

Unions are flexing their muscle

If not now, when?

That’s the prevalent thinking at unions. Companies have racked up big profits during the pandemic and employers have been scrambling to find enough workers in a resilient jobs market.

And for the moment at least, unions enjoy strong public support. Autoworkers, for example, point to a Gallup poll showing 75% of people support the UAW in its contract talks with the big auto makers.

Unions also have a friendly administration in the White House right now. Vice President Kamala Harris expressed her support for organized labor last week saying unions “make our middle class and our entire economy more strong.”

A report from the Treasury Department last week showed on average, unionized workers earn 10-15% more than workers who don’t have the benefit of a union. They also enjoy better benefits, while unionized workplaces tend to see smaller racial and gender pay gaps.

And organized labor has scored some big victories lately.

Unionized pilots at American Airlines scored pay gains of more than 40% under their new contract while UPS drivers achieved what the Teamsters union calls “the most lucrative agreement” in the delivery company’s history.

“We have seen that there are examples where employers come to the table… sit down, bargain, and arrive at results,” acting Labor Secretary Julie Su told NPR in an interview. “I think that is continuing to inspire what people have called a hot labor summer.”

Still, there’s uncertainty ahead after Labor Day

Simply put, the best thing workers have going for them is a strong job market — but there are questions about how long that can last.

The unemployment rate has been under 4% for 19 straight months — the longest such stretch in decades. Competition for workers is pushing up wages, especially for those at the bottom of the income ladder.

But job growth is slowing, with employers adding 187,000 jobs in August, compared to an average of 312,000 jobs in the first three months of the year.

The Federal Reserve has raised interest rates aggressively since last year in a bid to fight inflation and the impact of those higher borrowing costs are still filtering through to the broader economy.

Unionizing efforts have not always succeeded

Unionization efforts have increased, but there have been mixed results.

Workers petitioned for more than 2,500 union elections last year, according to the National Labor Relations Board, the highest level in seven years.

Less than half of those elections ended in a win for the union, however, and even fewer ultimately resulted in a collective bargaining agreement.

Take Starbucks. Unionizing efforts at the coffee chain first got underway two years ago. More than 300 stores have unionized since then, but no one has won a new contract yet.

That’s contributing to a slowdown in new organizing at Starbucks as baristas don’t feel they’ve gained much for all their efforts.

Starbucks has also fought hard to dissuade people from unionizing. Baristas have been fired and stores have been closed. Federal labor officials have cited the coffee company numerous times, but Starbucks continues to deny it’s done anything illegal.

Even if company actions to fight unions are proven to be illegal, penalties are often minimal and they hence don’t serve as a deterrent.

And there are limits to how much help the White House can provide. The administration has taken steps to boost union participation in public works projects, for example. But it’s gotten nowhere with unions’ biggest priority — passing the PRO Act, which would make it easier for private sector workers to organize and harder for companies to push back.

UPS workers walk a "practice picket line" in New York City on July 7, 2023.
UPS workers walk a “practice picket line” in New York City on July 7, 2023. The UPS union won a lucrative contract after negotiations earlier this year. [Timothy A. Clary | AFP via Getty Images]

After Labor Day, big fights loom ahead

It’s been a so-called “hot labor summer” — and more big battles loom in the fall.

The Hollywood writers’ strike for better pay and job security has already lasted over 100 days, surpassing the last writers’ strike in 2007.

And the UAW contract with Ford, Stellantis and General Motors is due to expire in mid-September. The union representing auto makers is demanding big pay hikes and benefit increases and are ready to strike if they don’t get what they want.

These two fights are drawing outsized attention because of what they represent: a battle for job security in changing times.

Hollywood is going through major shifts with the surging popularity of streaming services, while Detroit is seeing auto makers pouring billions to transition into electric vehicles, which generally require fewer workers to assemble.

That creates uncertainty on both sides. Workers want a say in how these two industries should navigate those changes and anxious employers want to preserve their flexibility as much as they can.

So unions may have notched a lot some key victories as of Labor Day this year, but there are still plenty of more battles to come.

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Transcript :


On this Labor Day, organized labor is on the move…


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Hey, hey. Ho, ho. Corporate greed has got to go.

FADEL: …Walking picket lines in Hollywood, signing up new members and in some cases celebrating wins at the bargaining table. Here’s AFL-CIO president Liz Shuler addressing fellow union members last week.


LIZ SHULER: It’s been a long time since this country has seen workers united like this – a long time.

FADEL: Polls show public support for unions is close to its highest level in more than half a century. Organized labor still faces big obstacles, though. And for people who don’t belong to a union, their bargaining power depends in large part on the overall health of the job market. So we’re going to spend a few minutes this morning talking about the state of labor with two of our correspondents, Andrea Hsu, who covers the workplace, and Scott Horsley, who covers the economy. Good morning to both of you.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: Good morning.


FADEL: So, Andrea, let’s start with you. During the pandemic, a lot of workers became newly interested in forming a union. We’ve seen high-profile efforts to organize workers at Starbucks cafes and Amazon warehouses. What’s the result been?

HSU: Well, there has been a lot of organizing activity, but with mixed results. Last year, you know, workers petitioned for more than 2,500 union elections, and that’s the highest level in seven years. It has slowed down a little bit this year, but less than half of last year’s elections ended in wins for the unions.


HSU: And even fewer resulted in collective bargaining agreements – a union contract – which is the whole point. And, you know, Leila, unionizing efforts at Starbucks first got underway two years ago, and more than 300 stores have unionized since. But not one has a contract. And I think that is one reason we’ve seen some slowdown in new organizing at Starbucks, because baristas just aren’t seeing that there’s been a lot gained for all their efforts. And meanwhile, they have seen the lengths that the company has gone to to dissuade people from unionizing. We’ve seen baristas get fired. Stores have been closed. And while this is illegal, the penalties are so minimal they don’t appear to be a deterrent.

FADEL: Yeah. So that’s really hard. Sounds like a lot of roadblocks for those trying to form new unions. So what explains the continued enthusiasm?

HSU: Well, I think public perception of unions has shifted a lot in the last few years. Not only are unions popular again; but a new Gallup poll found a third of people they surveyed believe unions are getting more powerful. And that’s a huge jump from just five years ago, when only 19% thought unions were gaining strength. And you can see what’s behind the shift. This summer alone, we saw pilots win big raises. UPS Drivers got what the Teamsters calls the most lucrative contract in UPS history. And, of course, the Biden administration is happy about this. Workers are gaining not only historic raises, but also big quality-of-life improvements. Here’s acting Labor Secretary Julie Su.

JULIE SU: I think that is continuing to inspire, you know, what people have called, like, a hot labor summer – right? – you know, workers standing up. And the more we see that, I think the more we will see the benefits of real worker power.

FADEL: Hot labor summer.

HSU: Yeah. We should point out, though, that now is the perfect time for unions to be putting up big demands because these companies have been enjoying record profits. And how long this lasts is unclear.

FADEL: OK. On that note, we should bring in Scott here and talk about the economy. How are unions feeling about this current moment in the economy?

HORSLEY: Yeah. I think unions do feel like if not now, when? As Andrea says, they’ve watched companies rack up big profits. We’ve also got very low unemployment, which makes it hard for companies to replace striking workers. And for the moment, of course, unions do enjoy strong public support. They also have a friendly administration in the White House right now. Vice President Harris said last week unions help the middle class and the economy overall.


KAMALA HARRIS: When union workers bargain for higher pay, it increases pressure on nonunion companies to raise pay as well to stay competitive in the labor market.

HORSLEY: That said, there are limits to how much help the White House can be. The administration has taken steps to boost union participation in public works projects, for example, but it has gotten nowhere with unions’ biggest priority, which is legislation that would make it easier for private-sector workers to organize.

FADEL: Yeah. I mean, we’re in an economy where 9 out of 10 workers don’t belong to a union. What kind of leverage do they have?

HORSLEY: Yeah. The best thing those workers have going for them is the strong job market. Unemployment did tick up a little bit last month, but it’s still very low. Employers added another 187,000 jobs in August. Competition for workers has been pushing up wages, especially for those at the bottom of the income ladder. All of that is good, but it’s no match for the power of collective bargaining. You know, a report from the Treasury Department last week said on average, unionized workers earn 10- to 15% more than their nonunion counterparts. They also enjoy better benefits and tend to see smaller racial and gender pay gaps.

FADEL: So, Andrea, one of the high-profile job actions this summer is that ongoing strike by actors and writers. How does this movie end?

HSU: Well, the last Hollywood writers strike in 2007 lasted a hundred days, and we’re already past that.

FADEL: Yeah.

HSU: What’s complicating things is it’s not just about wages. It’s about job security in changing times. And we’re seeing that in Detroit as well. You know, these are industries going through major shifts to streaming services. There are electric vehicles, the adoption of AI. Workers want a say in how these changes are going to be made. And employers, on the other hand, feel like there’s a lot of uncertainty, and they want to preserve their flexibility.

FADEL: NPR’s Andrea Hsu and Scott Horsley. Thank you both.

HORSLEY: You’re welcome.

HSU: You’re welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.