Bloomberg Law
March 21, 2023, 5:00 PM

Strikes Fuel Biggest Pay Raises in Labor Contracts Since 1990

Robert Iafolla
Robert Iafolla
Senior Legal Reporter

Clark University refused to discuss wages with the school’s newly unionized graduate student workers as they bargained for their first labor contract—that is, a union official said, until those workers went on strike in October.

“The strike started on a Monday,” said Eli Gillen, the Teamsters Local 170 business agent for Clark University Graduate Workers United. Unionized tradesmen also walked off a construction project at the school’s Worcester, Mass., campus to join the student workers’ picket line in solidarity, he said.

“We were back at the table by day three of the strike. By Friday, we got a tentative agreement,” Gillen said.

The Clark student workers unanimously ratified a contract that same month with generous pay raises, including as much as a 90% bump for Ph.D. student workers in some departments. The median wage increase was 18.3% per year of the three-year agreement.

That deal was one of nearly 100 labor contracts ratified in 2022 that included a double-digit pay increase in their first year, according to an analysis of Bloomberg Law labor data.

Contracts ratified last year called for first-year wage raises averaging 5.7%, the review of 817 deals showed. That marks a significant jump over the 3.7% average first-year increase in agreements ratified in 2021, and the highest average rate in more than 30 years.

The recent union wins at the bargaining table reflect increased worker militancy, labor relations observers said. Last year saw the most worker strikes in nearly 20 years.

At Clark University, the graduate student worker union’s strike helped obtain a first contract in about 200 days—less than half the average time for newly formed unions to reach an initial labor deal with their employers.

Clark Provost Sebastián Royo said the administration’s goal throughout bargaining was to reach an agreement that recognized graduate students’ valuable contributions to the school. “We were confident we could achieve that goal and were pleased when the contract was ratified,” he said in a statement.

Strike authorization votes can provide unions with leverage, even when workers don’t actually walk off the job.

Drivers with the school bus company First Student in Will County, Ill., won a 20% first-year raise after a strike vote that sent management the message that “they were willing to go to battle to achieve a fair contract,” said Tony Seminary, the Teamsters Local 179 business agent for the drivers.

First Student didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Inflationary Pressure

Spiking inflation in 2022 contributed to workers prioritizing wage increases over other issues, said Ruben Garcia, co-director of the Workplace Law Program at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.

Inflation factored into a union push for higher pay for nurses at Ascension Borgess Hospital in Kalamazoo, Mich., said Lori Batzloff, a nurse who heads the Borgess Staff Nurses Council.

“It costs more to live,” she said. “We have nurses who come from 40 and 50 miles away. Paying for those gallons of gasoline adds up.”

Ascension Borgess and the union agreed in December to a deal with a 20.5% first-year wage raise, along with increases to premiums paid to nurses who don’t work the day shift and those who work on call.

The hospital didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Pilots Win Big

The largest first-year pay increase from a union contract ratified last year went to a group of 700 pilots for Alaska Airlines subsidiary Horizon Air, who netted a 79.5% wage hike.

Agreements for pilots at two smaller outfits, CommutAir and Silver Airways LLC, also ranked in the top 10 highest initial salary increases, with 28.7% and 24% wage bumps respectively.

Alaska Airlines’ deal with 3,300 pilots made the top 10 as well, calling for a 23% first-year raise.

Large pay jumps for pilots at smaller airlines are more a product of correcting low wages than the pilots’ “pure bargaining power,” said Ryan Murphy, a history professor at Earlham College who’s written about labor relations in the airline industry.

Large airlines subcontract a significant share of their flights as a cheap way to increase flight capacity, Murphy said.

That outsourcing resulted in many pilots at smaller carriers making substandard wages, he said, likening them to underpaid adjunct professors in higher education.

But once the Covid-19 pilot shortage hit, those pilots started getting pay increases that made their salaries comparable to their peers at larger airlines, Murphy said.

Raising Salaries

That same dynamic was at play outside of the airline industry as well.

Nurses at Astria Toppenish Hospital, a rural hospital in Washington state, lost scores of nurses to better paying jobs during the lead up to contract negotiations, said Julia Barcott, a nurse and Washington State Nurses Association co-chair at the hospital.

Some nurses left the profession to make more money driving trucks, she said.

“We were ready to negotiate and then a little bird in management told us that they’d be willing to match salaries at one of the hospitals where we’d been losing people,” Barcott said. “So we said we’d like to reschedule bargaining, we revamped our proposal, and came in with an even higher wage scale.”

The Astria Toppenish nurses achieved a 27.5% first-year pay hike in their 2022 contract.

The hospital didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Wages Versus Benefits

But not all unionized workers won significant first-year pay increases in 2022, and workers at 10 companies got none at all in their contracts last year.

The 5.7% average first-year wage bump in 2022 represents a high-water mark for union deals going back decades, but it still didn’t keep pace with the average overall hourly pay growth of 6.3%, according to the Atlanta Fed’s wage growth tracker.

That disparity “shows how union officials put their own priorities and interests ahead of what is actually best for the average worker, let alone the most productive ones in a bargaining unit,” said Patrick Semmens, vice president of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, a conservative advocacy group that opposes unions.

Unions regularly push for contracts to include things like mandatory dues clauses, protections for the worst employees, compensation based on seniority rather than merit, and three-year terms, Semmens said.

But non-wage rights and benefits are sometimes the most significant worker wins in new labor contracts, said Celine McNicholas, the general counsel and director of policy and governmental affairs at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute.

Contracts often provide safeguards against being fired without just cause, health benefits, processes to handle grievances, and ways for employees to have a voice in the workplace, she said.

“While it’s tempting for folks who are advancing a more corporate, anti-union agenda to make collective bargaining all about wage gains, that’s a gross oversimplification and does a real disservice to the workplace reforms that come out of collective bargaining,” McNicholas said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Robert Iafolla in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Laura D. Francis at; Genevieve Douglas at

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