Unions have nowhere near the pull, or members, that they did decades ago, yet something has changed. There's no single explanation, but the boiling point we’re seeing today comes amid soaring costs of living and a widening gap between what workers and top executives are paid. Thousands of workers who were asked to make sacrifices during the pandemic even as corporate profits soared are now asking for a bigger piece of the pie.
Those demands have sparked grassroots organizing efforts across the country in the last year. And some of the nation’s largest unions have simultaneously been at the center of heated contract negotiations — with writers and actors hitting Hollywood picket lines, unionized auto workers striking at Detroit's Big Three and UPS reaching a new deal to avert a work stoppage that could have significantly disrupted the nation's supply chain.
Leading those efforts are new union leaders voted into power by workers that have seemingly run out of patience as they have a more difficult time making ends meet.
Here are some faces you should know.
Shawn Fain, United Auto Workers
Before Shawn Fain became the rallying voice for thousands of unionized auto workers striking at major car companies today, he was an electrician for Chrysler in his hometown of Kokomo, Indiana.
Fain became president of United Auto Workers this year, but his time with the union began at that then-Chrysler plant in 1994. Two of Fain’s grandparents were GM UAW retirees and one grandfather also worked at Chrysler, the union says. A biography on the UAW website notes that Fain “always carries one of his grandfather’s pay stubs with him" to remember where he came from.
Fain won a tight election to lead the UAW promising a more confrontational stance with big automakers. He vowed to clean up the union and unite members following a wide-ranging scandal that landed two former presidents in prison.
Fain has engaged aggressively with General Motors, Ford and Stellantis (formerly Fiat Chrysler). Months of contentious contract talks erupted into targeted strikes last week against all three Detroit automakers for the first time in the union's history.
The union under Fain has threatened to hit more plants if there is not enough movement from automakers during negotiations. The UAW wants across-the-board wage increases of 36% over four years, about twice what automakers are offering.
Even Fain has acknowledged that union demands are audacious, but he says automakers are raking in billions and can afford them.
“They could double our raises and not raise car prices and still make millions of dollars in profits,” Fain said last week. “We’re not the problem. Corporate greed is the problem.”
Sean O'Brien, International Brotherhood of Teamsters
Much of what you need to know about Teamsters president Sean O'Brien is right there in his handle for X/Twitter: @TeamstersSOB. Yes, those are O’Brien’s initials, sort of, but the underlying message is clear.
O’Brien, a Boston-area native who grew up in a Teamsters family, worked with then-president James Hoffa (son of the notorious Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa who disappeared in 1975). The contract agreement was widely criticized by members and passed only through a procedural technicality, with a majority of votes cast in opposition.
O’Brien announced a union presidential campaign in 2021. Hoffa retired and endorsed another union leader, Steve Vairma, who lost the election to O’Brien.
O'Brien immediately zeroed in on UPS and sought to right in their contract what many in the union saw as numerous wrongs. The Teamsters secured a lucrative contract last month that boosted wages and eliminated a second, lower-paid tier for some drivers. The winning margin: 86%.
O'Brien's UPS campaign appears to be a prelude to organizing delivery drivers for the online behemoth, Amazon.com.
“This is the template for how workers should be paid and protected nationwide, and nonunion companies like Amazon better pay attention,” O’Brien said.
Fran Drescher, SAG-AFTRA
Fran Drescher rose to fame as the co-creator and star of “The Nanny” in the ’90s. She's become the first president of Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists to preside over a strike since 1980.
Actors have been on picket lines since July and along with screenwriters who struck earlier this year, they're seeking better pay in an industry vastly changed due to streaming and the emergence of artificial intelligence.
Since becoming president of SAG-AFTRA in 2021, Drescher has become a firebrand voice for the top creative minds in Hollywood.
Drescher told The Associated Press that this moment in Hollywood is about the entire world of work, and a larger stand against corporate leaders who value shareholders over the people who create their product.
“At some point you have to say no more,” she said in recent interview. “I think it’s a conversation now about the culture of big business, and how it treats everybody up and down the ladder in the name of profit.”
Unlike the writers’ negotiations, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents major studios, has yet to resume talks with the actors guild.
Writers Guild of America Leaders
Talks between WGA leadership and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers resumed last month, but haltingly. Those on strike seek more pay, the use of smaller writing staffs for shorter seasons of television shows, and control over artificial intelligence in the screenwriting process.
Today, news and documentary writer Michael Winship is the president of the Writers Guild of America East. TV writer and former journalist Lisa Takeuchi Cullen, WGAE’s current vice president, will become the next president after voting closes later this week.
Takeuchi Cullen, whose previous TV credits include “The Ordained” and “Law & Order: SVU,” tweeted last month that, “I will lead @WGAEast in our epic battle for fair pay."
“This is not your father’s Council. Your elected representatives are tireless, passionate, and in the thick of our careers," she wrote. "We have skin in the game. We get our members’ issues because they are ours too.”
Meredith Stiehm, a writer and executive producer who created the CBS procedural “Cold Case,” has been president of the Writers Guild of America West since 2021. Stiehm is running for reelection against challenger Rich Talarico (“Key & Peele”), with voting set to close Tuesday.