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Will labor unions maintain their momentum in 2024?

Henry Epp Dec 28, 2023
Heard on:
A United Auto Workers union hall in Chicago. The UAW's coordinated work stoppages made headlines and produced results in 2023. Scott Olson/Getty Images

Will labor unions maintain their momentum in 2024?

Henry Epp Dec 28, 2023
Heard on:
A United Auto Workers union hall in Chicago. The UAW's coordinated work stoppages made headlines and produced results in 2023. Scott Olson/Getty Images

One major theme in the U.S. economy this year: Organized labor became more visible and vocal. It was helped by the highest level of public support for labor unions in decades, according to Gallup, but also by the tight job market, giving unions leverage in negotiations.

Next year, plenty more unions will be negotiating new contracts, including those at Boeing, AT&T and the U.S. Postal Service. But will they keep that leverage and maintain that momentum?

Labor unions had a moment in 2023 in part because workers were frustrated coming out of the early years of the pandemic, argued Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell.

“The real driving force has been the anger that workers have, that sense that they sacrificed so much,” she said.

She said that anger among union members — and a more confrontational stance by some leaders, like United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain — drove labor’s successes this year. 

“I do believe there’s been a changed energy and mood in the labor movement. They’re excited, they’re angry, they’re ready to go,” Bronfenbrenner said.

But enthusiasm alone doesn’t win a better contract.

“You can’t negotiate a collective-bargaining agreement in a vacuum,” said Michael Lotito, co-chair of the Littler Mendelson Workplace Policy Institute.

He said union negotiators have especially benefited from the low unemployment rate. Having fewer workers available makes employees more valuable to a company. But after years of increasing labor force participation, he said, there are signs that job gains might moderate next year.

“Things are stabilizing. And I’m not sure that that creates the best environment from a unionized standpoint with respect to trying to negotiate a deal,” he said.

If the job market and the overall economy strengthen in 2024, union negotiators will be able to ask for more generous contracts, he said. But if things slow down, it will be “very difficult for labor to be able to say, I want more and more and more, because the answer to more and more and more is fewer and fewer jobs,” Lotito said.

Still, the fact that workers were willing to strike for weeks or months in 2023 may have taught some employers a lesson, said Sharon Block, a professor and executive director of the Center for Labor and a Just Economy at Harvard Law.

“I hope that they learned that at the end of the day, they need to share with their employees,” she said.

If they do, they might prevent major disruptions to their businesses.

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