Jun 27, 2023 - Economy

Summer of strikes heats up

Illustration of a raised fist with a sunburst behind it

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

It's shaping up to be a summer of strikes: Workers are walking off the job across a remarkable range of industries from Starbucks baristas to factory workers making parts for jets to Amazon drivers.

Why it matters: The worker activism sparked by the pandemic seems to be increasing, thanks in part to a still-tight labor market and a relatively strong economy.

Context: The strikes aren't having much broad economic impact, for now, but they could portend even more labor unrest — as all this union activity might inspire others to seek better pay and working conditions.

State of play: Through May, there were about the same number of strikes in 2023 as last year  but the number of workers who walked out went up 80% (see chart below).

Then this month — really in the past week — there was a lot more action:

  • About 3,000 Starbucks workers are on strike this week over gay pride decor and accusations of unfair labor practices.
  • Two large strikes in the manufacturing industry got underway —  1,400 members of the United Electrical Workers union at a locomotive plant in Erie, Pa., and one involving about 6,000 workers at a Boeing supplier in Wichita.
  • Smaller actions sprung up, too: 84 Amazon drivers at a warehouse in California went out on strike, demanding that the company recognize their newly certified union. And cooks and cashiers at a McDonald's in Oakland, Calif., walked out.
  • Also in June, hundreds of workers at Gannett walked off the job, as well as 250 members of Insider's newsroom — part of what Axios' Sara Fischer calls a summer of media strikes.
  • Meanwhile, the Hollywood writers' strike continues.
Strikes and workers on strike from January to May
Data: Cornell ILR School Labor Action Tracker; Table: Kira Wang/Axios Visuals

The big picture: Starting back in "Striketober," in 2021, mounting labor unrest was really about the pandemic, Johnnie Kallas, a Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations, who works on its labor action tracker. But now?

  • "Workers just feel a lot more empowered," he said. "The increase in strikes speaks to ongoing discontent not just with wages, but disrespect and contentious negotiations, which are especially pronounced at Starbucks."
  • Unionized workers have struggled to come to a first contract with the coffee company, which has been hit with nearly 600 unfair labor practice charges from the National Labor Relations Board.

Reality check: For all the renewed energy, unions still play a far diminished role in the U.S. compared to where they were decades ago.

What to watch: Two major collective bargaining agreements are about to expire.

  • Later this summer, 150,000 autoworkers from GM, Ford and Stellantis are set to begin what's expected to be fairly contentious negotiations for their new contract; their existing one expires on Sept. 14.
  • UPS is negotiating a contract with its 340,000 drivers right now — it's the biggest collective bargaining agreement in North America. The union already voted to authorize a strike if the parties don't come to terms by July 31 when their contract expires.
  • Considering the number of workers these two unions represents, if either walks out that would mark a pivotal moment for labor in the U.S.
Go deeper