There’s a very real risk of a recession in the next year, which means it would seem like a bad time to send a letter to your boss, saying you think you deserve more respect.
But that’s exactly what Jorie Moss, 34, and a group of professional singers did last week when they asked the Philadelphia Orchestra Association to recognize them as a union so they could negotiate a contract.
A few years ago, it might have been daunting to try and organize a union at an arts organization during a time of economic uncertainty, says Moss, a member of the Philadelphia Symphonic Choir, which performs a few times a year with the Philadelphia Orchestra. But then, says Moss, who is involved in the organizing effort, the pandemic happened. “The time that we all had to sit in our rooms and think about what we’ve done—I’m talking about the pandemic—gave us a chance to reflect on the fact that these are conditions that we don’t have to stand for, we should be treated better, and we deserve to ask for it,” says Moss, 34.
It’s been more than a year and a half since waves of labor unrest started sweeping through the country. Thousands of workers have walked off the job for better conditions, and long shot campaigns—like organizing workers at Starbucks coffee shops—have snowballed, leading to a surge of union elections.
Now, the strong labor market that emboldened workers is softening. The unemployment rate ticked up to 3.7% in November—it had gone as low as 3.5%—–and high-profile tech and media companies have recently cut their payrolls through steep layoffs. But that doesn’t mean workers are losing the upper hand, says Thomas Kochan, a professor of employment research at the MIT Sloan School for Management. If anything, the current economic conditions mean labor strife may accelerate next year.
“I expect what we’ll see is more conflict, more strikes, and more contract rejections,” Kochan says. Workers are still focused on companies’ profits during boom years, he notes, while companies are starting to trim costs to prepare for an economic downturn. “It’s that difference in expectations,” he says, “that creates a higher probability of conflicts and strikes.”
Indeed, workers have staged some of the highest-profile walkouts as economic news has become more grim. A few days after media outlets including CNN and BuzzFeed laid off hundreds of workers, more than 1,100 reporters and editors at the New York Times walked out to protest a lack of progress in contract negotiations. Just after big companies like PepsiCo and Amazon announced white-collar layoffs, about 78,000 pilots, flight attendants, technicians and aircraft dispatchers who work at United Airlines announced on Dec. 7 that their unions had banded together to negotiate because they had “more than earned our fair share of the profits we create.” (In November, 94% of United pilots rejected a tentative agreement with the airline.)
Though companies are jettisoning workers, the job market is still extremely strong, which may be giving workers more confidence. There were 10.3 million jobs open in October, government data show; between 2000 and 2020, by contrast, there were, on average, about 4.6 million job openings in October. Around 58% of Americans said they thought they’d be able to find a new job if they lost their current one, the highest rate since Feb. 2020, according to the New York Fed’s Survey of Consumer Expectations, released Dec. 12.
Isabela Burrows, 20, has pushed for changes like higher wages, more consistent scheduling, and better standards for pet care at her employer, PetSmart. She knows that her activism with the labor group United for Respect isn’t making her bosses happy, but she isn’t too worried. Her brother died suddenly last year and PetSmart told her there was no time for grieving at work, she says.
“Caring about what PetSmart may or may not do – I don’t have the mental capacity for it,” she says. If she gets laid off, she says, “I’ll go find another job, there’s plenty.”
The series of organizing campaigns at airports, coffee shops, newsrooms and warehouses has had a bigger impact than just establishing small bargaining units, many of which have not been able to secure contracts with employers. That labor action appears to have energized workers at long-established unions who had given up big concessions in past economic downturns. Members of both the Teamsters and the United Auto Workers, both of whom agreed to two-tier wage structures before the pandemic, have chosen more militant leaders in recent elections, for example.
“There’s been a sense among members and among labor in general that we’ve had this pattern of unions making concessions in downturns to help employers weather the storm, and then workers don’t benefit when we get to the next period of growth,” says Todd Vachon, a labor professor at Rutgers.
What’s different now than in past downturns is the changing demographics that are leaving employers short-staffed. Baby Boomers who had stayed in the workforce until the pandemic have left en masse in recent years, while the immigration rate slowed in 2020 and has not recovered. Between 2026 and 2036, the U.S. will see its workforce shrink by 3.2%, which means “workers will have more power to demand changes,” according to a recent report on workplace trends by economists from Indeed and Glassdoor.
The changes that many workers want seem to revolve around more than just wages. Moss, the choir member, says that she and other workers have no predictability for when they’ll be asked to work and how much they’ll earn from one season to another. Lack of control over their schedule—specifically inability to take sick days when they needed them— was also what motivated four freight rail unions in November to vote down a contract brokered with their employers.
That’s also a point of contention among many UPS drivers, like Antoine Andrews, who has worked for UPS for 26 years. Andrews, a Teamster who drives a package truck in Brooklyn, says he’s sick of getting “harassed” by managers for not finishing his route quickly enough. When he started working at UPS, he says, fellow drivers told him that theirs was a job with a start time but not a finish time—they’d be home whenever all the packages were delivered. The pandemic helped him realize that workers in other fields didn’t sacrifice their family time for their jobs.
“We want to be able to balance work and enjoy our families,” he says. “There are people employed with UPS who didn’t have the opportunity to see their kids grow up.”
Many of these issues will come to a head in 2023 as big union contracts expire. The United Auto Workers will be seeking a new contract with the Big Three—General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis, the group that now runs Chrysler. The Writer’s Guild, which represents many working TV and film writers, has a current contract that expires next May. And the largest private-sector collective bargaining contract in the country, between the Teamsters and UPS, expires on July 31.
The Teamsters’ negotiations, which cover more than 240,000 UPS workers, may shed light on whether labor will be able to keep the upper hand going into a recession. UPS is facing pressure to cut costs as the economy slows, while workers like Andrews say they’re willing to go on strike to get what they think they deserve.
In Nov. 2021, the Teamsters elected a new leader, Sean O’Brien, who beat out a successor hand-picked by James P. Hoffa, who had run the Teamsters for 24 years. O’Brien, who took office in March, has said repeatedly that he’s not afraid to lead workers into a strike if contract negotiations don’t lead to improved conditions for drivers.
The last UPS strike, in 1997, was widely seen as a victory for workers, says Joseph McCartin, a professor of labor history at Georgetown University. Now, the stakes are even higher. Since 1979, he says, workers have gotten more productive but their compensation has not kept pace as investors push public companies for more efficiencies.
Labor hasn’t won many battles since the day that President Reagan fired thousands of air traffic controllers for striking in 1981. What happens between UPS and the Teamsters in 2023 “is going to help set the tone for other things,” he says. “This is going to be a key standoff for organized labor in the private sector economy in 2023.”