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'It's Time To Get Something Back': Union Workers' Voices Are Getting Louder

United Auto Workers members picket Wednesday at a General Motors plant in Flint, Mich. Last year, more U.S. workers went on strike than at any time since 1986.
Bill Pugliano
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United Auto Workers members picket Wednesday at a General Motors plant in Flint, Mich. Last year, more U.S. workers went on strike than at any time since 1986.

As autoworkers at General Motors plants around the country vote this week on whether to accept a new contract, workers elsewhere see an opportunity to demand their own chance in the driver's seat.

The U.S. is enjoying a record-long economic boom, but workers' slice of the pie has barely increased. After decades of relative silence, newly emboldened workers are increasingly vocal in demanding higher pay and better working conditions.

"We have given enough. It's time to get something back," declared Stacy Davis-Gates, vice president of the 25,000-member Chicago Teachers Union, which has been on strike since last Thursday.

Over the last two years, hundreds of thousands of teachers, nurses and factory workers have walked off the job. Last year, more workers went on strike than at any time since 1986.

"Working people have taken it on the chin for four decades," said Lawrence Mishel, a labor economist with the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute in Washington. "The workforce has been a tinderbox waiting to be lit. And if people see a way that they can solve their problems for themselves and their communities, they're going to take it."

In the 1950s, '60s, and '70s, it was routine to see hundreds of big strikes every year, idling a million workers or more. But in recent decades, work stoppages like the one at GM have been much less common. A turning point came in 1981, when President Reagan fired thousands of striking air traffic controllers.

Although Reagan was careful to distinguish the illegal controllers' strike from lawful walkouts by private-sector workers, many private employers followed his example, firing strikers in the years that followed. With unemployment topping 10% in the early 1980s, replacement workers were not hard to come by.

Since then, the share of workers who are unionized has been cut by half, to just over 10% last year. Union membership in the private sector is less than 7%.

"Strikes bottomed out because the employers were using an unbelievably strong weapon and because the labor market allowed them to find people who were willing to cross a union picket line to take the job of a union worker who was out on strike," said John Beck, a labor relations expert at Michigan State University.

Today, with unemployment near a 50-year low, there's less danger that striking workers can be quickly replaced. Employees at GM and elsewhere are asking themselves, "If not now, when?"

"You've got really an economy that says to many workers, 'This is the time for us to grab what we can,' " Beck said.

Teachers have been leading the charge, walking out of classrooms from Arizona to Oklahoma and West Virginia to protest wages that have lost ground to inflation.

Nurses have also been active on the picket lines. Like teachers, their jobs are not easily shipped overseas.

"We can't continue to work off the clock, work without breaks, work without a lunch," said Deborah Burger, a president of National Nurses United, which led one-day walkouts last month at hospitals in several states. "We're trying to raise the awareness of the community. They understand that, and they support us."

Public approval of organized labor is near its highest level in 50 years, a recent Gallup poll found. A separate survey found nearly half of all non-union workers would join a union if they could.

Still, any big rebound in union membership is unlikely, given the legal and cultural roadblocks.

"It's very difficult to organize new members," said Arthur Wheaton of the Industrial and Labor Relations school at Cornell University. "A lot of companies are hiring what they call 'union avoidance' law firms. And winning an election and getting the first contract negotiated is extremely difficult."

Twenty-seven states — including union strongholds like Michigan — now have "right to work" laws, which make union membership and dues-paying optional. Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that government workers who choose not to join a union can't be forced to pay a collective bargaining fee.

Some unions are now devoting more attention to improving pay and benefits for workers who aren't union members, campaigning, for example, for a higher minimum wage.

If the UAW strike results in better pay for autoworkers, employees in other industries may be encouraged to test their own bargaining power.

"People don't revolt when things are at their worst," Beck said. "They revolt when things are getting better but not fast enough."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.
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