Bloomberg Law
Dec. 29, 2022, 10:05 AM

Expiring Labor Contracts Across Sectors Threaten Unrest in 2023

Ian Kullgren
Ian Kullgren
Rebecca Rainey
Rebecca Rainey
Senior Reporter

At least 150 large union contracts are set to expire next year, potentially heralding more worker unrest amid soaring inflation and rising corporate profits.

The lapsing agreements represent at least 1.6 million workers, more than the population of Philadelphia. Among those are the Detroit automakers with 150,000 workers among three companies, UPS with 256,000 workers, and SAG-AFTRA performers with 160,000 workers, according to data collected by Bloomberg Law on union contracts covering more than 1,000 workers.

Those figures are based on information available in mid-December, and are likely to rise as more contract expiration notices are filed with the federal mediation service.

The data suggest more strike activity may be on the horizon in 2023, especially if inflation continues and employers have a hard time finding workers.

“I think the greatest leverage unions have is that workers are angry,” said Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, noting that the combination of the pandemic, stagnant wages, increased public support for unions, and the influx of young workers into the labor movement have changed the overall environment for negotiations.

Economic Considerations

At the same time, a recession could undermine workers’ bargaining power, forcing them to lower their demands, or even agree to concessions as some unions did after the 2008 financial crisis.

“Everything can change in the next year if you squeeze too hard on the interest rates and cause a greater recession,” said Arthur Wheaton, a Cornell University labor professor who teaches collective bargaining strategy.

Fear of a recession in the next year already is clouding negotiations between unions and employers.

Unions see this next round of talks as their last window to win raises to keep up with runaway inflation. Their demands have been jarring to employers, who are used to giving 1% to 3% increases but are now seeing requests as high as 9%, Wheaton said.

On the flip side, employers fret about giving too much away and weakening their financial footing on the eve of a potential recession.

“They’re both right—that’s what’s tough,” Wheaton said.

Spotlight on UPS, Health Sector

Among the closest-watched negotiations will be those between UPS and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. The Teamsters’ new president, Sean O’Brien, campaigned on taking a harder stance with the shipping giant, and has said he wants to use the new UPS contract as a basis to organize Amazon. The current agreement expires July 31.

A contract dispute of that magnitude could have an impact on the tone of other labor negotiations.

Bronfenbrenner said that the last time there was a UPS strike in 1997 “it had a ripple effect with every other union in the country.”

“The demands that these large bargaining units will make on employers will set the tone for all unions renegotiating their contracts in 2023, all the way down to the small groups of 50 workers or less, which far outnumber the biggest group,” added Bloomberg Law legal analyst Robert Combs.

“And that’s not even counting all of the newly formed unions from the past year who are still trying to land their first contract,” Combs said. “They’ll see the kinds of concessions that large unions will be able to gain, and act accordingly.”

Health care also will continue to be a major sector to watch. A union representing 75,000 Kaiser Permanente workers in California, Oregon, and Washington will seek to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement before their current one expires Sept. 30.

Some of largest expiring contracts are among state and local government workers, a sector that’s already seen a fair amount of unrest in recent years. A historic wave of teacher strikes shut down public schools across the country in 2018, and on Dec. 16, academic workers in the University of California system reached a deal to end a month-long strike—the largest of 2022 with 48,000 workers walking off the job.

Public-sector contracts up for renewal include Florida AFSCME state and local unions, with 90,000 workers; California Child Care Providers United, with 40,000 workers seeking a first contract; and the City University of New York system and the Oregon Home Care Commission, each with 30,000 workers.

To contact the reporters on this story: Ian Kullgren in Washington at; Rebecca Rainey in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Genevieve Douglas at