UAW members rally for a new contract at the labor organization’s Region 1 headquarters on Aug. 20, 2023. Photo courtesy UAW.
Support for unions is growing amid shifting working conditions and labor disputes around the country, according to Liz Shuler, the president of the largest labor group in the country.
In Shuler’s comments Tuesday at the AFL-CIO’s first State of the Unions event in Washington, she cited polling that showed support for unions cut across party lines. The AFL-CIO commissioned a poll by GBAO, a Democratic polling and research firm, that found 91% of Democratic respondents and 52% of Republicans approved of unions, with even higher numbers supporting the right to strike.
United Auto Workers at Detroit’s “Big Three” car companies voted overwhelmingly Aug. 25 to authorize a strike if a deal with Ford, General Motors and Stellantis is not reached before their contract expires Sept. 14.
Shuler characterized that vote as part of a trend in stronger union activity in the face of “a systematic attack” on labor, including many state laws that make union organizing more difficult and the 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision that allowed workers in unionized workplaces to opt out of paying union dues.
“What’s different about this Labor Day is the awakening happening all across this country,” Shuler said. “It’s up in Detroit, where just a few days ago, 97% of our UAW members said they were ready to walk off the job and push back against the Big Three.”
More than 200 strikes comprising 320,000 workers have happened so far this year, she said, noting that was 10 times the number of striking workers than just two years ago.
“It’s been a long time since this country has seen workers united like this,” she said. “A long time.”
Support for unions reflects an uncertain future for many Americans, Shuler said.
The shift toward a gig economy has left workers unsure about their long-term financial security, she said.
Technological advances in artificial intelligence can help workers do their jobs better, she said, but also threaten workers. She urged companies adopting artificial intelligence to listen to labor concerns about the technology.
Concerns felt more broadly across the country also impacted union members, Shuler said, referencing issues that may have appealed more to labor’s traditional Democratic supporters than the bipartisan support shown in polling.
Workers are concerned about climate change and democratic issues such as voting rights, abortion rights and censorship in schools, she said. Unions will work to elect politicians who reflect those values, she said.
“We will not be silent while extremist politicians attack our rights: Our right to vote and have our votes counted, our right to read the books we want to read, our right to think and speak freely on or off the job,” she said. “We will show up and organize and vote.”
Unions would support President Joe Biden in his reelection campaign next year, Shuler said, praising the president’s work to deliver federal infrastructure spending.
Biden campaigned on infrastructure improvements and supported the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law Congress passed in 2021.
The law supports millions of jobs, she said, not only in construction and transportation but in the service industry as well. Every job created by the federal spending should be a union position, Shuler said.
Biden has called for autoworkers and manufacturers to work together to come to an agreement before their contract expires.
Biden said the day of the UAW vote he’d “been talking to” the union and was “concerned” about the prospect of a strike, according to a White House pool report.
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