KANSAS CITY, Mo. — 2023 brings a shifting labor landscape on Labor Day.
Hollywood has been on strike for months, UPS narrowly avoided a strike that could have severely impacted the shipping industry, and on Labor Day weekend, autoworkers are threatening to walk off the job next week.
“It’s just corporate versus the little man,” said one striker on the holiday weekend. “It doesn’t matter where you’re at, whether you’re a mailman, whatever union you’re in. We’re fighting for everybody.”
That sentiment doesn’t surprise UMKC Economics Professor Dr. Sirisha Naidu.
She says the American workforce is still reacting to the pandemic and how it changed what workers want from their employer.
“That became sort of this realization about what’s important and are we really valuing our lives, are our employers and managers valuing our lives,” Dr. Naidu said.
Those workers are helped along by relatively low unemployment, making it more likely that employers listen to their workers on picket lines.
But part of the struggle is generational.
“Folks, this Labor Day, let me tell you what we’re celebrating,” President Joe Biden told a crowd in Pennsylvania. “We’re celebrating jobs. Good-paying jobs. Jobs you can raise a family on, union jobs.”
But the union jobs that President Biden claims built the middle class don’t necessarily carry the same purchasing power they once did. Inflation and a growing wealth gap make it hard for workers born in the 1980s through early 1990s to keep pace.
“For the first time, the next generation, particularly the millennials began to realize that they might actually not do better than the generation before them,” Dr. Naidu said.
That shift is also changing the nature of union negotiations, bringing in issues that previously were not up for debate. Teachers Unions have secured concessions to boost affordable housing for students’ families and upgrades to school buildings alongside wages, benefits and workplace safety topics.
“You’re beginning to see within the labor movement, different unions trying to figure out ways to expand what the labor movement can achieve,” Dr. Naidu said.