Union groups as varied as actors, writers and auto workers have recently won contract demands with employers, and the pro-labor sentiment in the U.S. doesn’t show signs of stopping.
President Joe Biden even became the first commander in chief to walk a picket line when he joined United Auto Workers in Michigan in late September.
In October, after a six-week strike, the UAW secured a historic contract for its members in negotiations with the big five Detroit auto companies. The contract included record pay increases (25% at General Motors and 20% at Ford, for example), with additional cost-of-living increases to come, according to a Washington Post analysis.
These recent labor wins may not directly affect the construction industry, but contractors and workers will feel the impacts of the UAW strike, experts told Construction Dive.
The UAW win is a “gigantic, seismic” moment in the labor movement, said Catherine Creighton, director of Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations Buffalo Co-Lab.
Setting a new tone
Creighton said the strike and the contract will impact other industries beyond just wage increase demands by workers and unions. By making front-page headlines for weeks, the strike has made labor issues top of mind in many industries.
With his aggressive messaging, UAW President Shawn Fain intended to reach beyond UAW members and to blue collar workers in general, including wearing an “EAT THE RICH” shirt, and throwing an automaker contract proposal into the garbage. He also called on other auto worker unions to set their contracts to expire in April 2028, so workers can strike together on that year on May 1 — International Workers’ Day.
“It wasn’t just his message. He backed that up with a really strong win, and really unheard of gains,” Creighton said. “Everybody’s got to be sitting up and taking notice.”
The UAW isn’t the only union that achieved gains this year. In August, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters ratified a new contract with UPS, followed by the Writer’sGuild of America approving a new contract in October. In November, SAG-AFTRA, the actor’s union, ended a 118-day strike for a new contract with Hollywood film studios.
Major companies in multiple industries have made headlines with workers attempting to form labor groups: Starbucks remains embattled with the workers who’ve begun to form unions at its locations and workers at an Amazon warehouse voted to unionize in April 2022.
“Five years ago, if someone had told me that you would have a union campaign organizing over 350 Starbucks stores, even a single Amazon warehouse or a bunch of Trader Joe’s and REI stores, it just didn’t seem possible,” said John Logan, professor and department chair of labor and employment studies at the San Francisco State University Lam Family College of Business. “Certain things are possible now that didn’t seem possible five or 10 years ago.”
A ripple effect
In construction, union membership remains historically low, decreasing to from 13.6% to 12.4% in 2022; 1 million of the country’s 8.7 million construction workers are union members, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. As recently as 2000, 18% of construction workers belonged to unions.
Nonetheless, construction’s union membership is still higher than all other industries — unions represented about one in 10 wage and salary workers in the U.S. in 2022.
Some construction unions had already sought higher wages and overall growth of wage packages before the UAW strike, said Dan Rosenberg, principal at Chicago-based law firm Much Shelist. For instance, in October, the Mid-Atlantic Carpenters Regional Council, agreed to a five-year contract extension with a representative of local union contractors that provided 4% annual increases divided among wage and benefits, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.
“I don’t know if that directly ties to the UAW, but it’s reflective of what’s going on in the market,” he said.
As construction employers estimate future jobs and future work “they need to be looking hard at what their built-in assumptions are about labor rates,” he added.
There isn’t a counterbalance to these sentiments either, he added, especially with a pro-labor presidential administration and a tight labor market, where one in five construction workers are 55 or older, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“You’re not in the driver’s seat from a bargaining position if you’re employing construction workers,” said Scott R. Green, vice chair of employment and labor at New York City-based law firm Goldberg Segalla, and member of Associated Builders and Contractors. “Everybody feels it.”
Despite low-time union numbers in construction, pro-union sentiment continues to be high. Two in three of Americans approve of labor unions, according to an August Gallup poll. That’s down slightly from a 2022 high of 71% approval, but marks the fifth straight year in a row higher than the long-time average of 62%.
“Workers feel that they are able to take more risk and to be bolder because there’s now a friendly administration in the White House,” said Logan. Biden has touted his administration as the most pro-labor in history.
The UAW’s win will add to that sentiment.
“[The UAW] got what they needed in relatively short order, and public sentiment wasn’t incredibly negative,” said Green.“It’s going to just embolden more people to go on strike.”