Every Union Contract Right Now Should Be the Best Ever

Ten years ago when I started at Labor Notes, we didn’t have so many strikes to cover—much less defiantly illegal strikes, like this one by teachers in Haverhill, Massachusetts. Photo: Haverhill Education Association

If your union goes into negotiations right now and doesn’t win its biggest raise ever, you’re leaving money on the table.

Soaring inflation means it takes a bigger raise just to break even. And with unemployment low, labor has extra leverage to win more.

Dining hall workers at Northeastern University in Boston just approved a new contract that will raise them to $30 an hour by 2026—triple the $9 they were making in 2012 before they unionized.

After a rowdy mass picket, Sysco food delivery Teamsters in Massachusetts won a 39 percent raise over five years.

Here in Seattle, Providence Swedish hospital workers just won their largest-ever economic package, with two-year raises of 21.5 percent or $6.50, whichever is more. (They structured it that way so the lowest-paid workers don’t get the lowest raise.)

These are just a few of many examples. Lots of "best in our union's history" press releases are crossing my desk.

The naysayers are about to try to stop this train, though. The Fed’s plan to rein in inflation has the intended side effect of raising unemployment, to discipline workplace militancy. With interest rates rising and an engineered recession on the way, we’re all supposed to get scared and quiet again.

Don’t buy it. Employers can afford to pay more. Corporations and the rich have made out like bandits throughout this pandemic, raking in record profits while workers paid the price.

And between the pandemic, climate change, and widespread understaffing, everyone’s job has gotten tougher, more hazardous, more grueling. Ask any airline pilot. Ask any postal worker.


Ten years ago when I started at Labor Notes, we didn’t have so many strikes to cover—much less defiantly illegal strikes, like the school employees in Ontario and teachers in Massachusetts.



Give $10 a month or more and get our "Fight the Boss, Build the Union" T-shirt.

A glance at the new December issue of our magazine shows how much more action there is now. In fact, the serious possibility of a general strike is discussed in both Ontario and the U.K..

Rail workers are mulling a massive national strike, despite the best efforts of union leaders and the Biden administration to stop them. Airline pilots may also be moving toward walkouts.

The Sysco drivers mentioned above didn’t just strike—they “shut the whole thing down” in a predawn confrontation where they blocked the way for scabs and faced down 100 cops.

And there’s more—we couldn’t even fit them all into print! Forty-eight thousand academic workers are out in California, the biggest strike of the year. Journalists at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette have been out for nearly a month. Philly art museum strikers won a first contract by threatening to derail a long-anticipated Matisse exhibit. Even self-organized nonunion workers have been getting into the act, like at Amazon.


It’s not hard to connect the dots between the resurgence of bold action and big contract wins. But also contributing is another fever I’m glad to see spreading: union reform movements, where rank and filers push from the inside to make their unions more democratic and militant.

Union reform is on the cover of our latest magazine, with a nascent effort in the Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). Reformers just won leadership in a major Teamsters local in the Midwest.

Such a transformation inside the Massachusetts Teachers eight years ago laid the groundwork for the brave strikes we’re seeing now.

In the Teamsters, a rank-and-file movement built over decades and a change of leadership has set the stage for what could be next year’s biggest strike, at UPS.

And whatever the outcome of the first-ever direct election now underway in the Auto Workers (the vote count started today—here’s a link to watch the results come in), the activists who notched that reform will help set the tone for next year’s Big Three negotiations.

If you’re looking for advice or moral support as you push to transform your own union—reach out. That’s what Labor Notes is for.

Alexandra Bradbury is the editor of Labor Notes.al@labornotes.org