A few hours after janitors voted in Boston to authorize a strike late last month, the United Auto Workers announced they had reached the second of three tentative agreements to end their roughly six-week work stoppage.
The cleaners, who could walk off the job as soon as Wednesday at midnight, were gathered at the union hall in Downtown Crossing when the news broke. “You should have heard the cheers in the room,” said Roxana Rivera, who leads the 32BJ SEIU local that represents 12,000 janitors in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
The janitors are riding a wave of momentum in an emboldened labor movement that has seized on worker discontent exacerbated by the pandemic, along with the ongoing labor shortage, soaring inflation, and a rise in activism among struggling workers demanding a share of corporate profits.
Nearly 500,000 workers have gone on strike this year, almost four times as many as the year before, according to the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations, and hundreds of thousands more have threatened to do so, leading to gains for auto workers, Hollywood writers and actors, health care professionals, UPS employees, and more.
The Biden administration’s pro-union stance and changes at the National Labor Relations Board to hold employers more accountable have further buoyed workers, while public support of unions remains higher than it’s been in decades. At the same time, labor organizers are growing increasingly strategic.
Shawn Fain, the UAW president, called the auto workers’ victory “a turning point in the class war that has been raging in this country for the past 40 years.” The new auto workers’ contracts are up April 30, 2028, and Fain encouraged other unions to align their expirations on the same day, potentially coordinating strikes across the economy “so that together we can begin to flex our collective muscles.”
Locally, teachers in Andover went on strike Friday, following a work stoppage by teachers in Woburn earlier this year. Housekeepers, cooks, and cocktail servers at Encore Boston Harbor casino voted to walk out in June and then settled days before the deadline; auto workers picketed the Stellantis plant in Mansfield as part of the national strike; and nurses held numerous actions.
Overall, the number of major work stoppages is far smaller than it was in the 1940s through the 1970s, but the pace picked up markedly this year. In October, when auto workers, Hollywood actors, and Kaiser Permanente health care employees in California were all on the picket line, striking workers missed more than 4.5 millions days of work, according to the Labor Department, the biggest monthly total in 40 years. The numbers in August and September were the highest in more than two decades.
These actions are paying off. Unionized workers have won an average wage increase of 6.6 percent this year, the biggest in more than three decades, according to a Bloomberg Law analysis conducted before the UAW contract deals were finalized.
The number of nonunion employees organizing is also surging, but the only workers seeing real gains are those with collective bargaining agreements already in place, said Sharon Block, executive director of the Center for Labor and a Just Economy at Harvard Law School. For thousands of people negotiating with employers for the first time at Starbucks, Amazon, Trader Joe’s, and REI, getting a contract is a major uphill battle.
As long as employers show up at the bargaining table “in good faith,” employees have little recourse if companies don’t do much once they get there.
“The weakness of the law is just so apparent,” said Block, a former Biden administration official. “The ability of an Amazon to just be like ‘No, we’re not going to bargain. We’re just not doing it.’ Same thing with Starbucks.”
This is critical because, with only 10.1 percent of all workers in a union, the labor movement needs to grow, she said: “Considering how much the economy has changed, we need pathways to expanding union membership in new sectors.”
Unions’ aggressive tactics are having a major impact on employers, which are reporting significant losses from strikes. The US Chamber of Commerce blasted the Biden administration’s support for the labor movement in a recent report, noting that promoting a “single special interest” was harmful for employers and the economy, as well as workers.
Higher wages are also driving up inflation, said Sean Higgins, a labor policy expert at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market think tank.
“I don’t know if I’d go so far as to call it a full-blown wage price spiral, but certainly I do think one is impacting the other,” he said. “Workers are demanding higher wages because of inflation, but as their purchasing power increases, that helps provide more fire for the inflation that is happening.”
Nurses have been particularly active in the labor movement due to safety concerns and understaffing issues exacerbated by the pandemic. Galvanized by the more than nine-month strike at St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester in 2021, nurses have been organizing and picketing and voting to walk off with increased intensity.
A number of short strikes have been authorized this year, including one at South Shore Endoscopy Center in Braintree, where newly organized nurses are set to hold a one-day walkout if their contract isn’t settled soon.
“Nurses are fed up,” said Christine Smith, who worked at emergency rooms in Quincy and Dorchester during the pandemic and took a $14-an-hour pay cut to join the Mass General Brigham-owned endoscopy center last year.
Workers at REI in Boston — one of eight REI stores currently in negotiations for a first contract — held a walkout on Nov. 4, part of a wave of actions protesting layoffs at union stores nationwide.
“It’s helpful to us that the growing labor movement will help us make what’s happening in our store more public,” said Molly Raddant, who works part time in the camping department. “The more workers who are organized and have power in their workplace, the more power we have in ours.”
The REI workers, who in Boston are represented by UFCW Local 1445, recently held a national webinar to inform non-union REI workers about the process of unionizing — one of many ways labor is becoming more strategic.
In the UAW walkout, employees of Ford, GM, and Stellantis began by striking at just a few plants, giving the union leverage to expand the action based on what happened at the bargaining table. The tentative agreements that followed were also unconventional, allowing employees at joint-venture battery plants, most still under construction, to be covered by the union contract or have a clear path to unionization.
The Teamsters also used innovative tactics in their fight with UPS, resolved days before the strike deadline, announcing a “contract campaign” a year before the collective bargaining agreement expired and holding high-profile practice picket lines.
Unions and labor groups have to get more creative on all fronts, said Chrissy Lynch, president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO: in the courts, on Beacon Hill, at City Hall, on worksites, and at the negotiating table.
“The tools of corporations to bust unions and break employment laws have become a lot more comprehensive and innovative,” she said. “We have to be a couple steps ahead.”
In Massachusetts, janitors for the first time coordinated their contract negotiations with other 32BJ SEIU locals along the East Coast. In all, 70,000 cleaners have been bargaining new agreements this fall from Washington, D.C., to New York to Boston, many of whom work for the same contractors. Negotiating on similar timelines makes it easier for organizers to arrange “sympathy strikes” across the region and give unions more leverage.
The ability to honor picket lines is included in most janitors’ contracts, allowing workers on strike in one city — Philadelphia, for instance — to form a picket line at a mutual employer in another city, such as Boston, that enables those Boston cleaners to walk off the job, and remain protected, without an official strike being called.
Workers can feel the intensity growing. Manuel Jaquez, who cleans at Vertex Pharmaceuticals in the Seaport and Takeda in Cambridge, was part of the last janitors’ strike, in 2002. The union is more organized now, he said in Spanish through an interpreter, noting that he and other strike captains representing workers at 1,500 buildings started discussing strategies on WhatsApp a year and a half ago.
In 2002, he said: “We were just out there on the street. We didn’t know whether to turn left or turn right.”
This year: “We’re all now marching in a straight line toward a victory.”