This fall didn’t just bring colorful leaves and cooler temperatures — it brought a wave of labor activity to Detroit and the surrounding area. 

Labor strikes in the automotive, health care and casino industries started in September, and thousands of workers in metro Detroit are still striking

“Detroit is a union town,” Art Reyes III, executive director of We the People MI, said. “Working-class people here know that direct action gets the goods. And right now, people are claiming their spot in a long legacy of worker power. It’s beautiful to see.” 

Strikes are woven into the fabric of the city. Successful strikes can lead to other strikes and encourage workers to fight for better working conditions. Labor experts say that’s the gist of what’s happening in the city. But many Detroiters are left with questions about the mechanics, importance and impact of labor strikes. We have some answers for you.

What is the impact of the labor strikes?

Strikes have an impact on individual industries and the broader economy. Because labor strikes are adversarial and each side uses information to gain leverage, it can take a lot of work to tease out what exactly the effects are. 

The United Auto Workers (UAW) strike against Detroit’s Big Three automakers, for example, hurt those companies financially. One estimate says they lost a combined $4.3 billion in revenue during the strike. The automakers had made nearly $21 billion in profit in the first six months of 2023, just before UAW negotiations started. Striking workers reaped the biggest benefit after deals were struck. The UAW’s agreements included double-digit wage increases, which workers said they believe they deserve

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Similarly, Detroit casinos, whose workers have been on strike since Oct. 17, are one of the biggest tax generators for the city. The casinos generated more than $1.2 billion in revenue last year. Workers currently striking have only seen a 3% wage increase since 2020. Inflation increased dramatically in that period.

With a win, these casino workers can get up to a $3.25 per hour raise in the first year of the new contract. The strikers say the autoworkers’ success keeps them on the line as the temperature drops. Reyes said this snowball effect leads to more organizing and worker demands. 

“(The successful strikes) are very clearly saying, ‘This is for all working-class people,’” Reyes said. “That part is really important because that’s a signal to everybody that you can win by banding together and demanding what (you) deserve.”

How often do workers go on strike?

Michigan has had 12 authorized strikes since January, according to the Cornell-ILR Labor Action Tracker, which monitors nationwide strike and labor protest activity. “Authorized” means the striking workers were unionized, and their union supports the strike. There’s no specific figure for Detroit. That’s up from the nine authorized strikes that happened in 2022.

Eleven of those strikes included pay as a worker demand. Unionized workers earn 18% more than their nonunion counterparts, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Unions also increase wages across the board in a particular industry. For example, if a workplace is not unionized, but the industry is 25% unionized, then the workers in the nonunion workplace still earn an average of 5% more in wages.

What rights do workers have when organizing a union?

Unions can provide more power for workers to demand certain benefits from management. They act as the exclusive bargaining agent for its members. Having a formal union creates a legal obligation for employers to bargain in good faith with their unionized employees.

Reyes said collective bargaining gives workers more leverage, making them an equal voice at the negotiation table. 

Unions must legally represent all their members’ interests fairly, in good faith and without discrimination. Workers have the right to criticize a union official and still be heard.

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) protects most workers trying to improve their work experience together. Under the law, your employer has no right to fire, discipline, threaten or “coercively question” you about protected activities. 

Protected activities include talking with coworkers about wages or benefits, circulating a petition for better working conditions, participating in a strike, refusing to work because of unsafe conditions, and discussing your workplace issues with an employer, government agency or the media.

The NLRA doesn’t protect all workers. Some of those excluded are domestic workers, agricultural laborers, independent contractors and local, state or federal government workers. These workers can still unionize but aren’t protected from retaliation from their employers.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) also has no authority to investigate an employer or union independently. The board relies on workers’ complaints and willingness to testify against their employer. The law does bar employers from engaging in “objectionable conduct” that affects the outcome of union elections. 

Still, employers often break these laws, says University of Michigan labor educator and communications coordinator Nolan Rosenkrans. This can discourage people from voting for the union. 

Because of this, Rosenkrans recommends that workers be strategic in approaching coworkers and have one-on-one conversations with small groups of people at a time.

What if you don’t want a union?

If you are against unionizing your workplace, you have the right to participate in a campaign against the union. Rosenkrans said the common reasons people oppose unions are because they fear retaliation from management, don’t want to pay dues or prioritize their personal ability to negotiate.

Be prepared for possible fees when starting a union. Michigan will no longer be a right-to-work state as of March 2024, meaning that unions can soon require employees to pay dues or service fees even if they voted against the union. 

How do you form a union?

Rosenkrans said reaching out to a union organizer in the area is a good first step. Though forming independent unions is possible, unionizing with established unions can simplify the process.

If you want to form a union, workers need 30% of the workplace to sign a petition stating they want a union. Afterward, the National Labor Relations Board conducts an election. If a majority of those who vote choose the union, the union becomes certified by the NLRB.

If workers show management that a majority of staff want a union, employers can contact the NLRB themselves to certify the union without an election.

It takes an average of 465 days for unions and employers to sign a contract.

“These are long-haul fights,” Reyes said. “We’re seeing a lot of corporations really fight to try and prevent (unions) because when workers have equal voice at the table, (they) are able to bargain for the things they deserve.”

Reyes said some successful examples of unionizing include the back-and-forth effort from Starbucks workers, who have in recent years voted to unionize at a number of individual stores. 

Rosenkrans also pointed to the recent University of Michigan graduate student employees’ collective bargaining effort. They went on a five-month illegal strike for better wages and benefits, as well as financial assistance for international graduate student employees. They reached an agreement on Aug. 22, days before classes started this fall.

Can workers organize without unions?

The NLRA protects all workers organizing to improve their workplace, including nonunion workers. 

“There’s a lot of successful organizing campaigns in the area, ones that you won’t see a big newspaper story about,” Rosenkars said. “I think a lot of people feel like all those unions just existed for hundreds of years.” 

Regardless of having a certified union or participating in nonunion organizing, Reyes said demanding fair workplace treatment is necessary for working-class people’s future.

“The question that’s central for a lot of us is: ‘Are we willing to be a society where there’s a consolidation of wealth and political power in the hands of so few?’” Reyes said. “The only way we counterbalance that … is by people coming together and demanding different.”

SaMya (she/her) believes in empowering and encouraging minority voices through local journalism because journalism is a service to the community, not vice versa. She loves Campus Martius, especially during holiday time with the bright lights and snow.