As high-profile strikes tentatively end, what is the lasting impact?

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In the last few weeks, a number of major labor strikes that had sidelined thousands of workers across several industries tentatively came to a close—but, experts say, labor activity nationwide could just be starting to heat up.

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This week, one of the most high-profile strikes—organized by actors union SAG-AFTRA, which represents 160,000 actors—was suspended after the union reached a tentative deal with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. That action came on the heels of another Hollywood strike, by the Writers Guild of America, which ended earlier this fall.

And last week, the United Auto Workers reached a tentative deal with General Motors, ending a contentious, six-week-long strike that sidelined nearly 50,000 workers at Detroit’s Big Three automakers. Union members still need to give final approval.

Union activity to keep picking up speed?

While the strikes in the motion picture and automaking industries made headlines, they are part of a larger push toward union activity in recent months.

According to NPR, 2023 has already seen 17 major private-sector work stoppages, the most in more than a decade. Nationwide, researchers from Forrester estimate, there have been at least 312 strike actions this year, affecting nearly 500,000 U.S. workers.

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The Culinary Union in Las Vegas this week reached tentative deals with MGM Resorts and Caesars Entertainment, potentially avoiding a strike that experts say could cripple the city’s tourism scene; the union has yet to reach a deal with Wynne Resorts. Last week, unionized tech workers at the New York Times walked off the job to protest return-to-office policies and contract negotiations. Even non-unionized employees are following suit, with reports that pharmacists at leading brands like CVS and Walgreens are planning walkouts in the coming weeks to protest workloads related to understaffing.

Josh Bersin
Josh Bersin

“Employees are speaking up,” industry analyst Josh Bersin told a crowd of HR leaders at HRE‘s Strategy Summit, taking place this week in San Diego. “Employees are really overwhelmed and stressed and, the frontline employees are worse.”

According to research from McKinsey, 45% of frontline workers in the U.S. plan to leave their jobs in the next six months, with ongoing frustrations over a lack of connection, support and development opportunities.

A lack of support for frontline employees’ financial wellness was cited as the driving reason behind a strike that started this week at the federal government’s largest call center contractor, Maximus. Strike organizers contend more than 90% of call center workers at the organization aren’t making a living wage and just as many have incurred medical debt or avoided treatment because of costs. Two-thirds of Maximus workers surveyed in a report released this week said they rely on public or private safety-net programs to make ends meet.

“While the company uses its cash to enrich its executives and shareholders, many

of Maximus’ frontline workers are struggling to make ends meet,” strike organizers wrote in the report.

Maximus workers field millions of calls about the Affordable Care Act and Medicare, organizers say, and the strike comes just as open enrollment season is getting underway.

As workers become more outspoken about working conditions, they may find support in a changing federal government, Bersin notes, as President Biden has publicly committed to being the “most pro-worker and pro-union president in American history.”

“[The administration has] placed labor advocates all over the federal government to facilitate the growth of labor unions so, at least for the next couple of years,” Bersin says, “there’s going to be more of this, depending on the industry you’re in.”

Behind the employee drive for power

In a Forrester blog, however, J.P. Gownder, vice president and principal analyst, cautions employers to keep perspective. The UAW and SAG strikes, he notes, were driving factors in the spiking number of employees participating in labor activity this year.

“Whenever those two unions act, strikes appear magnified,” he says, noting that the half-million workers affected by strikes thus far still only account for 0.3% of the total number of Americans in the workforce.

Gownder does, however, note that such activity represents the workforce’s growing cognizance of “employee power,” which Forrester labels as one of the “shocks” that will define the future of work.

J.P. Gownder

“In this era of connected technologies,” he writes, “employees have better information, more options and many avenues for communication—leading them to expect more from their employers than before.”

He urges employers not to discount the push for employee power as “noise,” but rather to look at strikes and other expressions of this drive for power as representing a “misalignment between management and employees on key issues.”

“Leaders should keep an eye on strikes but should focus their actions,” he advises, “on a broader employee power framework.”

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