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What this year’s labor strikes mean for America’s working class 

It wasn’t too long ago that a working-class job, meant a middle-class life.  

I grew up in Michigan in the 1970s, when some of us went off to college but many more went straight into factories, construction and other industries. My friends’ working-class jobs provided a type of stability and security that feels elusive in 2023.

Even if there was only one parent working outside the home, families owned their houses. There was plenty of food. Health insurance covered illness or injury without the threat of bankruptcy. Our parents could buy us a bike and maybe even take us “Up North” on a little vacation.  

But now, in Michigan and throughout the country, the type of working-class prosperity that surrounded me as a kid exists mostly in the memories of people my age or older. 

In the 20th century world I was born into, the American labor movement showed we could build a relatively inclusive economy in which work really paid by giving voice and power to workers in construction, manufacturing, hotels, restaurants, hospitals, transit, trucking and more. And while that world has eroded, now, in 2023, workers across the economy are showing us that this can be our future again. 

In what might be the most underreported economic story of the summer, 340,000 Teamsters who work at UPS, the largest group of working people under one contract, demonstrated ferocious solidarity and won big gains in wages, benefits and quality of life: Wages will increase significantly for everyone, forced overtime was eliminated, cooling systems will be standard in all vans, and thousands of part-time jobs will become full-time jobs. These gains will ripple through the delivery and warehousing industries and beyond, affecting all kinds of workers nationwide.  

Simply put, the UPS employees’ win for themselves provides a boost to the whole working class. 

Now, the UAW is building on this momentum. The CEOs of GM, Ford and Stellantis are trying to create a false choice between treating workers fairly and the type of clean energy future that is necessary for survival of the planet. But the UAW isn’t letting them get away with it.  

President Shawn Fain is taking his message directly to his members and the American public via Facebook Live and interviews with the press. He’s speaking about issues beyond the details of the contract he’s negotiating, advocating passionately about problems working-class Americans across industries face like “poverty wages” and “greedy CEOs.” And his message is resonating: Poll after poll shows that despite potential disruptions in auto production, Americans are siding with the UAW rank and file. 

Even as these well-established unions use the biggest tool they have to make their employers agree to create truly good jobs, we must realize how many more workers are clamoring for a chance to get into the conversation — and being denied by America’s pathetically out-of-date labor laws. Workers at more than 350 Starbucks have voted to unionize in the last two years, along with others at REI, Trader Joe’s, a major Amazon warehouse and more. Not a single one of these groups of workers who braved scorched earth campaigns to defeat them have achieved a first contract, even after many months. 

But that’s where the workers in established unions from Hollywood to UPS to the auto industry come in. Their struggle, their tactics and their gains help explain why workers seek a union foothold in new companies — and why helping Starbucks baristas win basic rights would benefit us all. Whether you are a member of an established union at GM or fighting to create a new one at REI, you are amplifying the same question: Can we have livable jobs in America in the 2020s? 

Many of the people who most need to hear this message are my former colleagues in Congress. Until we update our laws to guarantee that workers who form a union can get a fair contract within a half year or so, we will not be able to rebuild the middle class in this country. 

Labor economists can tell you that many jobs will continue to require high school plus an apprenticeship, short-term credential or on-the-job training. We must help students and workers get the training and credentials they need to do the work of advanced manufacturing, information technology and more. But we must also organize society so that work really pays, including for the huge number of people who will devote themselves skillfully to jobs across multiple sectors that don’t require college degrees. 

This is what the UAW strike is really about. Through unions, workers can create an America that more closely resembles the shared prosperity of my childhood than the “trickle down” world my children have inherited. All the rank and file are asking for is solidly middle-class wages, good benefits, dignified retirement and the sanity of regular and predictable hours like the people I grew up with had. Union workers built the middle class in the 20th century, and they are the best people to rebuild it in the 21st

Andy Levin, distinguished senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, has fought to advance workers’ organizing and bargaining rights for 40 years in Congress, the Clinton administration, as Michigan’s chief workforce officer and at the AFL-CIO and SEIU. 

Tags Amazon fair pay Ford GM labor strikes REI Shawn Fain Starbucks Stellantis Trader Joe's UAW Unions UPS-Teamsters Strike working class