It became known as the winter of discontent. After the Labour government tried to freeze wages to stem inflation, Britain was convulsed by labour strikes and disruptions in public services. Rubbish piled in the streets, bodies went unburied – and a fierce political backlash swept Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives into power.
Forty-five years later a summer of strikes is roiling industries from coast to coast in America.
Unions have launched or are threatening stoppages that could affect everything from airline travel and parcel deliveries to car manufacturing and film and TV production. They could also disrupt the economic growth that Joe Biden wants to campaign on in 2024.
“It takes him off message because strikes are visual, strikes are hot video, and they’re a focal point for media,” said John Zogby, an author and pollster. “It becomes lame trying to explain, ‘But the numbers are good, but the numbers are good, but the numbers are getting better,’ when the video just doesn’t appear to show it.”
The coronavirus pandemic had many aftershocks and labour turmoil may be among them. Hollywood production is shut down as the Writers Guild and the Screen Actors Guild are striking, partially over concerns about streaming revenues as well as artificial intelligence taking away jobs from creative workers. The action has put films and TV shows in limbo and could cost the economy an estimated $3bn.
There is also the prospect of a United Auto Workers strike as contract talks get under way and the industry wrestles with a transition toward electric vehicles. The Teamsters union said its drivers might walk off the job as they struggle to reach a new contract with UPS (United Parcel Service). And more than 26,000 flight attendants at American Airlines are set to hold a strike vote over the coming weeks.
Among other examples mushrooming across the country, thousands of hotel workers in Los Angeles have also been striking this month while healthcare workers at a major Chicago hospital are planning to do likewise in a dispute over wages and lack of staffing.
And last month there were localised walkouts at Amazon, McDonald’s and Starbucks, while hundreds of journalists across eight states went on strike to demand an end to painful cost-cutting measures and a change of leadership at Gannett, the country’s biggest newspaper chain.
Drexel Heard, a public affairs strategist based in Los Angeles, said: “This is what I believe is the start of a trend that was inevitable post-pandemic: workers knowing and understanding that things cannot go back to normal. We all work hybrid now, for the most part.
“People are understanding that their need for healthcare is something that’s critical. Their need for better pay and better work hours is essential, especially when we have things that happen like a pandemic, and people want to feel safe. The only people who are fighting for workers’ rights are unions.”
Scenes of industrial strife heading into winter would provide fodder for rightwing media who already accuse Biden of embracing the leftwing ideas of Senator Bernie Sanders. It might also create a headache for a president who is focusing much of his re-election campaign on the strength of the economy.
On Thursday he was at the Philadelphia Shipyard in Pennsylvania to promote “Bidenomics”, a recently adopted slogan. The president said: “We have a plan that’s turning things around pretty quickly. ‘Bidenomics’ is just another way of saying ‘Restore the American Dream’.”
But that message is still struggling to break through with voters. In a CNBC All-America Economic Survey released this week, 37% approve of Biden’s handling of the economy and 58% disapprove. In a Monmouth University poll, only three in 10 Americans feel the country is doing a better job recovering economically than the rest of the world since the pandemic.
There is a baffling disconnect between these opinions and data that shows America defying predictions of recession and curbing price rises faster than other major economies. Inflation has fallen from 9% to 3% and is now at its lowest point in more than two years.
Indeed, Biden may have helped create the very conditions that make strikes more likely. White House officials say that unions are empowered to press for more benefits and better pay because of the strong job market. Unemployment is just 3.6% and job openings are relatively high.
This is one reason why Robert Reich, a former labour secretary under President Bill Clinton, does not believe that the current wave of strikes and potential strikes will overwhelm Biden’s effort to highlight economic growth.
He explained in an email: “(1) the strikes and potential strikes still represent a tiny segment of the American workforce, (2) overall job gains and wage gains continue to roar, (3) a big reason workers feel able to strike is that the labor market continues to be tight, which is another good sign for Biden.”
Reich, a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and a Guardian US columnist, added: “The potential problem for Biden isn’t the wave of strikes and potential strikes but the seeming determination of the Fed to continue to raise interest rates, thereby risking a recession before Election Day.”
Widespread industrial action would pose a fresh test for Biden, a self-proclaimed “union guy” born in blue-collar Scranton, Pennsylvania. Past attempts to intervene in such disputes have not always gone smoothly.
Last year his administration helped forge a tentative agreement between rail companies and their unionised workers to avoid a strike that could have rocked the economy before the midterm elections. The tentative deal prevented a strike but failed to appease workers, and Congress ultimately had to intervene by imposing an agreement.
Biden, who is pushing the Senate to confirm Julie Su as his new labour secretary, has already expressed support for the striking Hollywood actors and writers, insisting that all workers deserve fair pay and benefits. Such an approach could work to his advantage against Republicans seeking to rebrand themselves as the party of the working class.
Faiz Shakir, chief political adviser to Sanders and executive director of More Perfect Union, who met with Biden and young labour organisers at the White House this week, said: “When you think about some of the working-class people who are in the swing voter category, they tend to carry an anger and frustration about an economy that hasn’t been working for them.
“It would be wrong to go back to them and tell them, ‘Hey, everything is much better since I was president.’ I think you want to say, ‘I’m fighting for you and I’m improving the situation for you. However, there’s way more work to do and the people who are standing in the way are these corporate bosses, and I’m taking them on from you.’
In the UPS dispute, Shakir argues, Biden should make clear he stands with the workers. “Stand boldly with those workers. Say, ‘I stand with you. You want to go on strike? That’s fine. Yes, there will be costs to consumers, yes, there will be some challenges in the economy, but your work is essential and important and you deserve your fair share.’
“What I think will end up happening is you usually get some criticism from the business elite who are going to say, why is the president of the United States siding with these workers and making it even harder for these people to reach a negotiated outcome? To that, I say that is good for politics, because when working people see that you’re sticking your neck out for them, they will reward you. They see you taking arrows for them.”
Shakir also believes that the dispute will be resolved in a few weeks with a positive outcome for labour, and that Biden will be able to justifiably claim that he helped improve the lot of hundreds of thousands of workers.
In his remarks in Philadelphia on Thursday, Biden was again careful to align himself with workers and unions against Wall Street and companies that made record-high profits during the pandemic. If a disruptive wave of strikes comes to pass, this is likely to be the least risky strategy.
Bill Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution thinktank, said: “It’s my distinct impression that support for labour unions has gone up significantly so we’re not talking about [British miners’ leader] Arthur Scargill in the 1970s. We’re talking about an extended period during which a lot of Americans believe that workers have got the short end of the stick.
“They’re much less worried about ‘big labour’ than they used to be, in part because labour isn’t as big as used to be, especially in the private sector where labour unions have weakened enormously. There’s a basic sense of fair play operating to increase support for not just working people but organised labour, so I don’t think this is a bad time to strike and I don’t think that will necessarily redound to Joe Biden’s discredit.”