As US economy improves, workers’ confidence grows for unions to fight

By Brian Williams
February 26, 2024

The current uptick in the U.S. economy, showing a 3.1% increase in gross domestic product last year, in job openings and a declining monthly rate of overall inflation, is good for the working class. It means workers have more confidence to act to improve their situation and opens up more opportunities for using our unions to fight for better wages, schedules and working conditions.

Recent actions include the Feb. 13 rallies across the country by flight attendants demanding higher pay and compensation for all the hours they work; the two-week “illegal” strike by 2,000 teachers in Newton, Massachusetts, that won wage raises and cost-of-living adjustments; and the six-week strike by the United Auto Workers last fall against the Big 3 — General Motors, Ford and Stellantis. Gains made there have inspired organizing efforts at Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz, Toyota and 10 other nonunion auto companies.

It’s impossible to predict the course of the economy, but in the face of an upswing today many workers are still dissatisfied. “Why Americans Are So Down on a Strong Economy” headlined a Feb. 7 Wall Street Journal article. Many feel “vulnerable to wide-ranging social and political threats,” the paper said.

Growing numbers of working people sense that the spreading wars and social crises today, from Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine to Hamas’ Oct. 7 slaughter of Jews in Israel, are reverberating throughout the Washington-led imperialist “world order” and will impact their lives and that of workers worldwide.

“Even though I’m OK right now, there’s a sense it could all go away in a second,” Kristine Funck, a nurse in Milford, Ohio, told the Journal.

She expressed concern about rising health care costs, putting coverage out of reach for increasing numbers of working people. Average family health care premiums rose 7% last year and are expected to go up another 6% this year.

Clayton Wiles, 44, a truck driver in Wilmington, North Carolina, said he makes $10,000 more than he did three years ago, bringing the family’s annual income to $58,000. “But the Wiles can’t afford to fix their broken-down truck and plan to draw from modest retirement savings to pay for health insurance for their two children when they lose Medicaid eligibility this year,” the Journal said.

According to a recent Journal-NORC survey, some 78% of people in the U.S. aren’t confident their children’s lives will be better than their own, a record percentage since this survey began in 1990.

Among those hardest hit are workers stuck in low-wage jobs. Their families pay as much as 30% of their income on food and another 30% on transportation. In January the Labor Department announced 353,000 jobs had been added to the U.S. economy. But the number of those having to work part time and more than one job, with lower wages and often no benefits, is increasing.

Real wages declined from mid-2021 until mid-2023, when an uptick in union battles meant wage raises began to edge slightly higher than the inflation rate.

Prices stay stubbornly high

What continues to make more and more workers and farmers angry are high prices at the grocery store. The slowing monthly rate of inflation has had little impact there. Over the last four years groceries have gone up 25%, gasoline 22% and rents 19%. In addition, electric bills have risen 26%  and child care 16%.

This leads many workers to substitute cheaper items in their diet, like ground beef for steak, which is up 33%. And prices go up through what bosses call “shrinkflation” where you pay the same price to buy ever-smaller amounts of food, like breakfast cereal. Since January 2019 household paper products were up 34.9%, with nearly a third of the increase from smaller sizes of rolls and packages. This isn’t reflected in the government’s calculation of inflation.

Many workers are turning to increased use of credit cards to pay for necessities, from groceries to fuel to electric bills. And it’s taking longer to pay these debts off. This is a boon for the big bankers, who charge well over 20% interest rates on outstanding monthly balances, a rate that goes even higher if you miss a payment. Delinquencies are on the rise.

Mortgage rates, now at about 7%, discourage young workers from getting a place of their own to raise a family. Home mortgage rates were under 3% before the pandemic.

All of this leads to openings for the working class. Workers feel the economy is improving, and there’s room for us to fight for our class interests, at the same time the attacks of the bosses mean we need to fight.