Labor activists are calling it Hot Labor Summer: A once-in-a-generation wave of worker activism and strikes uniting white-collar and blue-collar workers on picket lines across the nation.
It kicked off with a walkout of 11,500 members of the Writers Guild of America on May 2, followed by 160,000 members of the SAG-AFTRA, the Hollywood actors’ union, who went on strike on July 14. The strikers are demanding a fair share of Hollywood’s surging profits and protections against job loss from artificial intelligence technology.
A once-in-a-generation wave of worker activism and strikes uniting white-collar and blue-collar workers on picket lines across the nation.
According to Bloomberg, more than 300,000 workers have gone on strike so far in 2023. Though it is still only summer, this is already the highest annual number since 2019 (when there were major teachers’ strikes in several states and school districts).
And only a last-minute deal between the Teamsters Union and United Parcel Service may have averted what would have been the biggest strike in half a century. Tens of thousands of UPS Teamsters organized practice picketing nationwide in July, as union leadership demanded what Teamster President Sean O’Brien called “the best contract in the history of UPS.” Under new leadership, the Teamsters saw this summer—when unions are both more visible and more popular, and when the unemployment rate is low—as a chance to win a historically good deal for its members. (Despite the deal, a UPS strike remains a possibility. The tentative agreement now goes to 340,000 UPS workers for their approval. A “no” vote would put them out on the streets.)
Since the Great Recession of 2008, labor’s focus has largely been on holding the line when it comes to pay and working conditions. But tight labor markets, rising public approval and a pro-union White House have given unions the confidence to demand more for their members.
And Hot Union Summer could extend into the fall. The new president of the United Auto Workers has declared he is ready to strike the Big Three automakers if they do not meet the union’s demands for wage increases and the restoration of automatic cost-of-living increases. The current contract, which covers 144,000 workers at the three automakers, expires on Sept. 14.
Tight labor markets, rising public approval and a pro-union White House have given unions the confidence to demand more for their members.
“The Big Three is our strike target. And whether or not there’s a strike—it’s up to Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis, because they know what our priorities are. We’ve been clear,” said U.A.W. President Shawn Fain.
The thread tying all these different groups of workers together—from screenwriters and actors to part-time package handlers and autoworkers—is money. For the last two years, until this June, inflation outpaced wage growth, which meant many working people had trouble keeping their heads above water. A CNBC survey released in April found that 70 percent of Americans reported feeling financially stressed, and 58 percent said they live “paycheck to paycheck.”
Many union members have more specific problems as well. Actors and writers are demanding higher residual payments from streaming services, UPS part-timers want a raise in their starting salary, and autoworkers are looking to end a two-tier wage system that pays new hires less than veteran workers for doing the same job.
“Over the past decade, your compensation has been severely eroded by the rise of the streaming ecosystem,” SAG-AFTRA president Fran Drescher said in a message to members, while Teamster President Sean O’Brien said too many UPS workers are making “poverty wages.”
Catholic social teaching is clear on the best tool to promote a just wage: organized labor.
Wage stagnation was a problem long before post-Covid inflation. Paychecks for the bottom 80 percent of working Americans have stagnated for over 40 years. Between 1979 and 2020, workers’ wages grew by 17.5 percent while productivity grew by 61.8 percent. That means much of the economic growth since then has flowed to the top 1 percent, resulting in growing income inequality and increased financial stress for middle- and lower-income Americans.
For Catholics especially, this should be a cause for concern. Catholic social teaching is clear that every worker deserves a living wage. As St. Pope John Paul II wrote in his encyclical “Laborem Exercens” in 1981, “[A] just wage is the concrete means of verifying the justice of the whole socioeconomic system and, in any case, of checking that is functioning justly” (No. 19).
Catholic social teaching is also clear on the best tool to promote a just wage: organized labor. As Msgr. John A. Ryan, the foremost advocate of Catholic social teaching in the 1920s and ’30s and a vocal supporter of the New Deal, put it: “Effective labor unions are still by far the most powerful force in society for the protection of the laborer’s rights and the improvement of his or her condition.”
This is why Catholics should welcome Hot Labor Summer. Not because we endorse class warfare but because, as St. Pope John Paul II points out, strikes are “legitimate in the proper conditions and within just limits” (No. 20) as a lawful means for workers to reshape the economy and receive their fair piece of the economic pie. That is good not just for workers but for society as a whole.
As St. Pope John Paul II points out, strikes are “legitimate in the proper conditions and within just limits” as a lawful means for workers to receive their fair piece of the economic pie.
Catholics have played an instrumental role in the American labor movement since its very beginning because they saw unions as one of the best means to put the church’s commitment to a moral economy and the common good into practice. While the economic and theological landscape has changed substantially since Pope Leo XIII first issued “Rerum Novarum” in 1891, our responsibility as Catholics to help build an economy that serves man and not the other way around is just as pressing today as it was then.
That means getting off the sidelines and walking with their brothers and sisters in labor. A good start is honoring picket lines or delivering cold water and donuts to strikers.
But as Pope Francis wrote in “Fratelli Tutti,” “Solidarity means much more than engaging in sporadic acts of generosity. It means thinking and acting in terms of community.”
Catholics need to recommit themselves to the church’s teachings when it comes to social justice and workers’ rights. And we must bring that message to our parishes, communities and workplaces.
With public support increasingly on labor’s side, and increased levels of worker activism, this summer could be labor’s best opportunity to rebuild its power in decades. And for Catholics, that is a good thing. There may be no better place to put Catholic social teaching into practice than on the picket line.