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Throughout 2023, there has been a steady stream of new strikes. As the COVID-19 pandemic slowly wanes from public consciousness, work stoppages of various sizes across multiple industries have been cropping up across Europe and North America. In Canada, the British Columbia dock workers’ strike cost over $10 billion in trade disruptions throughout the summer. In the United Kingdom, the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) has continued work with periodic stoppages since June last year.
Some might argue that most of these strikes do not constitute anything new and are just a course correction after a downturn of collective action during COVID-19; but, with the United Postal Service (UPS) and rail workers’ strikes earlier this year and a potential auto workers’ strike looming, these strikes across multiple sectors in the US do seem to possess some unique characteristics. Most notably, they are all happening around the same time and increasingly becoming connected.
Work stoppages are still generally down compared to their historic high points. Despite this, the increase in visibility afforded by these strikes constitutes a potentially major shift in the status quo. Labour solidarity, or support offered between workers of different sectors, has become more widespread; the extremely high-profile pension strikes in France and the WGA/SAG-AFTRA strike in Hollywood represent a labour flashpoint for a new generation.
The Decline of Unions and the Rise of Inequality
For decades, economists and political elites have repeated the refrain that union memberships and strikes must decrease for businesses to thrive. Picketers continue to be viewed unfavourably by the general public, especially in the United States and Canada, where many people view unions as generally entitled, lazy, and, most significantly, “[doing] more harm than good.” However, this sentiment has not always been the case: work stoppages and union membership hit an all-time high between the 1950s and 1970s in much of the Western world. What has happened between then and now is important to understand.
Most Western nations wanted to foster a pro-business environment, so their post-Cold War economic strategy often defaulted to a pattern of reduced investment in social services for privatization, outsourcing, and free trade markets. Partly, As part of this economic strategy, which has come to be known as the “Washington Consensus,” union membership in places like Canada and the US has plummeted since the 1990s. In the US, union membership has come in the form of many states passing “right-to-work” laws, which restrict union formation and membership by allowing workers the option to join their workplace’s union while still reaping the benefits of union activity regardless of whether they join.
Although they may initially seem like they are living up to their name, in practice, right-to-work laws contribute to lower union membership and, as a result, a reduced ability for workers to collectively bargain for better wages, benefits, and working conditions. As a result, the 23 US states that have passed right-to-work laws have lower numbers of union workers, which correlates with lower wages across the board.
Market success especially became the conventional wisdom of the day, and economic growth flourished, though not for whom it was promised. The 2000s gave warning signs, like the 2008 financial crisis and steadily growing income inequality. Yet they were largely shrugged off by politicians, economists, and Western media as anomalies rather than symptoms of these policy choices. The consequences of emphasizing these aspects of globalization are coming home to roost — worker compensation lags now behind their productivity. Eras in which union membership and strikes were more common saw worker compensation far closer to that of executives and relatively matched their productivity levels.
Unions Today: Back to Normal or Something New?
The trajectory that led to the current economic landscape may explain the new resurgence of interest in labour unions; they are not an instant solution to unfair working conditions and inequality, but union outcomes are statistically and historically proven beneficial to workers. After all, many of the benefits and protections that most people take for granted today — such as the 8-hour work day, paid holidays, a minimum wage, as well as the end of child labour — were once greedy demands that had to be fought for by union workers.
However, some individuals call this moment in labour history a “union paradox.” While absolute membership has grown in the US, the increase in non-union workers outpaced it, leading to a drop in the total union involvement rate. This supposed paradox speaks more to specific laws that prevent the interest in unions from converting into unionization in the first place. Starbucks and Amazon’s highly publicized union-busting measures in response to domestic American unionization efforts — led by Millennials and Gen Z, no less — is a testament to this current paradox.
The status quo, then, has yet to shift in meaningful ways. Notably, the popular mentality around unions and strikes has changed — the massive influx of coverage surrounding the French pension strikes and the WGA/SAG-AFTRA strikes are the two most prominent examples of this shift.
Specifically, the combined striking of famous Hollywood actors and writers with solidarity from many corners of the international film and television industry is arguably about as high-profile of a labour dispute as there has been in recent memory. Many young people entering the workforce are likely seeing this kind of collective action for the first time, let alone at this scale. The political and economic importance of the shift in popular mentality cannot be understated — since the advent of the internet, this change is virtually unprecedented. In theory, labour organizing should be easier with 21st-century technology and social media; yet, it has been slow to adapt to the internet age, which makes this public shift in consciousness all the more consequential.
While the Hollywood strike is highly visible and affects people internationally, the French strikes have been another highly publicized instance of collective worker action. The support for protests against the proposed raising of the retirement age has come from diverse industries and unions in France and beyond. Additionally, the sheer amount of civil unrest brought by these protests has generated commentary in other Western countries, with discussion circulating about the willingness to strike over what initially seems like a small change.
Solidarity in the 21st Century: A Cause for Hope
As two major current-day examples of international solidarity between labour movements, the simultaneous WGA/SAG-AFTRA and French pension strikes represent a flashpoint where more workers are learning about the role of collective action and its utility in bettering working conditions worldwide. Even though Canada, the UK, the US, and France all have different labour laws and are experiencing strikes with various demands and contexts, to dismiss this popular development is to ignore the current global political reality in which economic common sense has not worked as promised and have left many behind.
Additionally, the rising tide of far-right populism and nationalism observed worldwide is evidence of a large population of disaffected working-class individuals whose interests are brushed aside by establishment politicians, regardless of party affiliation, to support multinational corporate growth. While the Trump era ushered in isolation and xenophobia as a new answer to these problems, they are not a solution. This summer of strikes and the international consciousness it has cultivated offers hope that economic inequality can improve through a renewed focus on collective bargaining and cooperation.
Edited by Sun Woo Baik