Workers made history in 2023, but it’s make or break in 2024
Workers at the Washington Post rally outside the company's offices in downtown Washington, Dec. 7, 2023. Theirs was one of the last major actions in 2023, a year of big wins for labor. 2024, however, holds some big challenges for the movement. | Mark Schiefelbein / AP

There is no question that 2023 was a year of record-setting victories for U.S. workers and their unions, with unprecedented numbers winning drives to unionize their workplaces and huge increases in public support for labor unions and for the right of workers to unionize.

It is reasonable to expect that these victories will continue in 2024, but under the radar, for the public at least, are some major threats looming to halt these gains.

The positive results of some of the major labor struggles of the year that just came to a close are rather obvious. Strikes by autoworkers, writers, actors, and nurses and a threatened strike by UPS workers all led to significant wins in 2023.

People all over the country saw these wins and expressed support for the workers who won them. Even before 2023, unprecedented numbers of workers won unionization drives at many companies, among which were the victories of young workers at corporate giants like Amazon and Starbucks, to name only two.

Continuing victories by many thousands of workers in the year ahead, however, will require overcoming a second barrier which is much less obvious to the public than the first barrier of winning a union at the workplace. Even workers involved in unionizing drives, fully aware of the anti-union challenge they must push through, are not fully cognizant of this second hurdle they must overcome—the refusal of companies to negotiate a first contract.

Tens of thousands of workers who unionized as long as two years ago still face companies unwilling to negotiate with them. What’s worse is that corporate bosses have a powerful weapon in their toolkit—the disgracefully weak and inadequate labor laws in place in the United States.

Loopholes in that law allow companies to get away with ignoring their responsibility to negotiate with their unionized workers.

It’s a problem for workers because they have the most success in negotiating contracts with their bosses in cases where they have already won victories. This, of course, is leverage workers are missing when they negotiate for a first contract.

In the historic UAW strike against the Detroit Big Three this year, the workers won truly impressive contracts, with wage increases of 25% or more over several years. The union is in a position to use those tremendous gains to win organizing drives at Tesla, Toyota, and other automakers.

This is particularly important because it will focus the union on battles in the non-union South. It is the lack of union strength in the South that has long been a critical weapon the capitalist ruling class uses to hold back the labor movement all over the country.

Meanwhile, without the leverage of strong labor law, the workers at Starbucks, Amazon, Apple, Trader Joe’s, and so many others who have recently unionized will continue their struggle this year to win first contracts. The ruling class is well aware that a victory by the UAW in organizing in the anti-union South is connected to the ability of the newly organized workers in the other companies to win.

The struggles of all of them, however, are connected to replacing antiquated U.S. labor law with the PRO Act, which specifically stops companies from refusing to talk to their unionized workers about wages and working conditions.

2024 is an election year and a good time for labor to remind lawmakers that it’s not enough for Democratic, progressive, and “pro-labor” politicians to celebrate the victories of workers during 2023 or even to walk the picket lines with them. They must join and lead the movement for passage of the PRO Act until it becomes law.

Even with the big victories of 2023, which included major wins by 340,000 Teamsters at UPS, 150,000 screen and TV actors, 140,000 autoworkers, and 85,000 Kaiser Permanente health workers, stronger labor laws might have allowed for these victories without the workers having to be forced into strikes that were difficult and painful for them. Labor law was not a major factor in making these victories any easier for workers—victories which came only after massive strikes or threats of strikes.

Bosses like to blame unions

Bosses like to accuse unions of fomenting chaos, but it is really the bosses, wielding among other things, labor law slanted in their favor, that foment the chaos by among other things, stalling in negotiations. To make gains or even to hold their own, workers are routinely forced to strike. It’s not an option they freely choose, and it is not what it should take for workers to be fairly compensated.

Some of the flaws in labor law will affect major struggles coming up in 2024. In September, the contracts for 200,000 Postal Workers will expire, and it is illegal for them, under current law, to strike.

Other contracts that are up this year cover 45,000 dockworkers at ports on both the East and West coasts, 30,000 Boeing workers, and 8,000 film crew workers in Hollywood.

The workers in the companies of these industries, although they operate under inadequate labor law protection, have the leverage of the successes scored by the workers who did make major gains in 2023.

The UAW’s victories over Detroit’s automakers are already showing success in its campaign to organize the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., for example. Well over 1,000 workers there have already signed union pledge cards.

It won’t be so easy at plants across the South, however, with Tesla’s Elon Musk announcing that he will oppose unionization with everything he’s got. The richest man in the world has declared that the UAW is not going to be welcome in his plants.

I disagree with the idea of unions,” Musk said recently. “I just don’t like anything which creates a lords and peasants sort of thing. I think the unions naturally try to create negativity in a company.”

It promises to be a furious struggle even with the big victories under the UAW’s belt. With even large, strong unions like the UAW expecting a hard time, one can see that many unions representing newly unionized workers will face a particularly difficult struggle.

We will see this play out at Amazon, where the Teamsters have been running a big battle against the notoriously anti-union executives at the retail giant.

Also, in the new organizing file, labor unions are continuing drives in 2024 at all kinds of so-called “white collar” institutions, including outfits from universities and libraries to museums and art galleries.

Unions are also busy trying to turn strikes—activities they are usually forced to carry out—into creative efforts to increase gains for workers through solidarity across different areas of production and service.

In March, the labor movement is pro-actively threatening a mass walkout, almost a general strike, by 30,000 workers in the Twin Cities. A vast array of unions have lined up their contract expiration dates so that if they strike, they will all be striking at the same time. The Twin Cities unions involved represent 4,500 janitors, 1,000 airport workers, 2,500 security guards, and thousands of teachers and school support staff.

Massive strike pending

The pending labor action in the Twin Cities also reflects the determination of unions to build alliances with broad sections of the public.

Among the union’s demands are calls for cleaning up the environment and major improvements to education and social services. “What we’re trying to do is a contribution to the evolving excitement about labor,” said Greg Nammacher, the president of a Service Employees local representing Twin Cities janitors and security guards.

In addition to all of this, there remains the task for labor in 2024 of finally achieving a first contract for the Starbucks workers who first unionized two years ago in Buffalo, N.Y. This struggle shows the weakness of current labor law because even with the strong backing of the National Labor Relations Board, the union has been unable to win a first contract.

The National Labor Relations Board and the union note that Starbucks has failed to bargain in good faith. Union officials explained that Starbucks has refused to negotiate for more than six months and has not put forward any contract proposals in over a year.

Short of changes in labor law that allow for fast and severe penalties for refusing to bargain in good faith, among many other things, many believe that strong mass action will have to be stepped up against Starbucks. There are growing calls for a Starbucks boycott; students at Georgetown and UCLA are urging their universities to kick out Starbucks.

While many say the main task for labor in 2024 is to end the threat of Donald Trump and guarantee the re-election of President Joe Biden, most labor leaders and growing sections of the membership of unions see other major challenges that must be met for both short- and long-range success by labor.

Unions see the need to reverse the decline in union membership and in the percentage of workers in unions. Just 10% of workers are in unions nationwide, down from more than 20% during the 1980s and 40% in the 1950s.

It is more than positive that the UAW has undertaken a large-scale organizing drive that aims to unionize more than 100,000 workers. But other unions, aided by the AFL-CIO, are beginning to launch and absolutely must launch major organizing drives in 2024.

There is increased understanding that reversing the decline in union membership is the task before not just unions, but the citizenry in general. Union success has always meant success for all workers, both union and non-union.

A major task ahead in 2024 is building an engaged working class, with the backing of their unions, to take on the bosses across the country. The UAW demonstrated that this is what worked with the workers they represent, and workers across the board must do the same.

They demonstrated that this is what it takes to bring the president of the United States to the picket line. It’s the workers, not even the best of well-intended lawmakers, that can and will save the workers and move them forward in 2024.


John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People's World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward and a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee. In the 1970s and '80s, he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.