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A Banner Year For Strikes

Workers are finding a fresh enthusiasm for organizing.

I once decided to go on strike from my weekly chores.  My father responded by saying he respected labor movements and their right to advocate for better working conditions.  He added, however, that my allowance would not be paid until and unless normal service was restored.  Immediately thereafter, I set a new world record for peeling potatoes.

My action was inspired by what was going on in the world at large. I grew up in an era of strikes: back then, unionized sectors were threatened by global sourcing and concerned about wages that struggled to keep up with costs of living.  Walkouts involving scores of workers, often lasting for many weeks, were frequent.

We don’t see episodes like that much anymore.  Organized labor is a shadow of its former self; union membership has fallen to just over 10% in the U.S., from nearly a third in 1960.  About one-quarter of British workers are unionized, as opposed to 40% sixty years ago.  The shift from heavy industry to services and the expansion of global trade have limited labor’s leverage for decades.

But 2023 is shaping up to be a big year for labor actions.  There have already been several prominent strikes in developed countries: transit and health workers in the U.K., writers, actors and (potentially) automakers in the United States.  Tight job markets have emboldened workers and provided companies with limited options for replacing picketers.

 

Parcel carriers in the U.S. reached a tentative contract last month that calls for significant pay increases over the coming five years, especially for the part-time workforce that is critical to performance during the holiday season.  As a consequence, delivery charges are almost sure to increase in the months ahead.

None of this is to suggest that the pay being demanded by unionized employees is unjust or unreasonable.  But the results of collective bargaining will keep the pressure on the price level at a time that policymakers are trying to tame it. 

Unfortunately for me, there is no economists’ union that can help me get revenge for my failed revolt as a younger man.  And so literally and figuratively, I am still peeling potatoes.

 


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Carl R. Tannenbaum

Executive Vice President and Chief Economist
Carl Tannenbaum is the Chief Economist for Northern Trust. In this role, he briefs clients and colleagues on the economy and business conditions, prepares the bank's official economic outlook and participates in forecast surveys. He is a member of Northern Trust's investment policy committee, its capital committee, and its asset/liability management committee.

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