Starbucks executives announced in February that they had agreed to negotiate pay raises and working conditions with a union representing 10,000 of the company’s baristas at more than 400 of its 17,000 stores in the United States.

Widely known for its aggressive union-busting tactics, the coffeehouse chain’s recognition of its employees’ bargaining unit, Starbucks Workers United, was described by labour activists as a thunderclap signalling a historic shift in labour relations nationwide.

“There’s no denying that there has been an increase in worker militancy,” Steven Greenhouse, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, DC, told Al Jazeera.

After years of decline, organised labour in the US is surging as more and more employees are forcing their employers to negotiate their wages, benefits and job duties and are challenging their bosses’ business plans. And when their demands go unmet, more employees are walking off the job than at any time in the last half-century.

According to the Labor Action Tracker at Cornell University, 492,000 workers in the US went on strike in 2023, and the 354 work stoppages that year represented a 70 percent increase from the 201 strikes in 2021. And employees in 2024 are on a pace to nearly double last year’s number: In the first four months of the year, more than 481,500 workers have already gone on strike.

In the past 16 months, 84,000 nurses, doctors and other medical professionals walked off their jobs for three days and won 21 percent pay increases from Kaiser Permanente. The United Parcel Service agreed to wage increases for 34,000 Teamsters who went on strike, and 16,000 United Airlines pilots won pay increases of 34 to 40 percent. At the same time, writers and actors in Hollywood walked off their jobs in 2023. Both were successful.

Wearing shirts that read, “One Job Should Be Enough,” hotel workers in Los Angeles last summer staged more than 130 “rolling” or “pop-up” strikes to demand higher wages and better working conditions. To date, nearly half of the city’s hotels have agreed to union contracts.

In October, 3,700 hospitality workers walked off the job in Detroit, closing all three downtown hotel casinos. All three hotels settled within 47 days, conceding to the striking employees the largest pay increases since the venues opened in 1997, a workload reduction for housekeepers and Juneteenth as a paid holiday.

A month before the Detroit boycott began, tens of thousands of culinary workers in Las Vegas packed a convention centre and voted to authorise a citywide strike to begin nine days before the 2024 Super Bowl in the city. Recognising that they had been outmaneuvered, casino owners capitulated and signed a new contract.

Inspired by the string of worker victories, topless dancers in Los Angeles, the men’s basketball team at Dartmouth College and visual effects artists at Marvel Studios have all voted to unionise in the past year. Employees at a popular nonprofit animal shelter in Austin, Texas, voted on Wednesday – International Workers’ Day – on unionisation. The results have not yet been released, but it was expected to pass.

And in perhaps the most high-profile labour standoff, the United Auto Workers, or UAW,  broke from industry custom by bargaining with the Big Three automakers – Ford Motor, Stellantis and General Motors – simultaneously and walking off the job at strategic plants without giving prior notice. After a six-week strike, union leaders managed to negotiate a 68 percent increase in auto workers’ starting pay, 25 percent pay raises and cost-of-living adjustments for current workers, and the union’s right to negotiate plant closures with auto executives.

“As today’s more mobilised workers’ movement has pressured many companies into resetting upward what they’re willing to give their employees, unions have come away with some highly impressive contracts in recent months,” said Greenhouse, a former New York Times labour reporter. “The incredible run of contract wins this year is unlike any in recent memory.”