Economy

A Summer of Strikes-TGN

This year, workers across industries in the United States have increasingly walked off the job or threatened to do so. In July, tens of thousands of actors joined screenwriters on the picket line, bringing Hollywood to a halt. Meanwhile, a summertime strike of more than 300,000 United Parcel Service workers seemed imminent before a deal was reached last month.

Now, another large-scale strike looms. The United Auto Workers union has voted to authorize a walkout of about 150,000 members at General Motors, Ford Motor and Stellantis if negotiations fail before contracts expire on Sept. 14.

If the auto workers go on strike, the number of workers who have walked off the job at some point over the course of this year will top 450,000, the highest level since 2018, another notable year for work stoppages.

Strike activity increased slightly in 2021 and 2022 after a lull during the pandemic. Much of this can be attributed to the historically strong economic recovery, which has strengthened workers’ bargaining power, said Ruth Milkman, a professor at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center and School of Labor and Urban Studies. “The single most important factor is the tight labor market,” she said.

Despite the recent uptick, overall union activity has fallen since the 1970s and 1980s, when the number of workers on strike in a year regularly surpassed 400,000.

2023 could be a standout year for strikes, though it will not reach past highs

Number of employees involved in work stoppages in the United States

By the 1980s, public support for unions had waned, with approval hovering just above 50 percent, according to Gallup, compared with the post-World War II high of 75 percent. In 1981, members of the federal air traffic controllers union walked off the job, breaking a law that barred government employees from striking. President Ronald Reagan said he would fire the workers if they did not come back to work within 48 hours. More than 11,000 who did not return were terminated and replaced, and their union was decertified.

The aftermath of that strike reverberated in the private sector, said Joseph A. McCartin, a professor of labor history at Georgetown University. “It encouraged private sector unions in the 1980s to do what Reagan did, which was basically to replace striking workers,” Dr. McCartin said.

Union membership in the United States has also been on a steady downward trend, a decline that accelerated in the 1980s. The percent of the work force belonging to a union dropped to about 10 percent in 2022 from over 20 percent in 1983. Highly unionized industries like manufacturing and transportation shifted labor into right-to-work states, where union power is limited, as well as overseas. The explosion of non-union jobs over the years has also contributed to the continued decline in unionization rates in those sectors, said Dr. McCartin.

Union membership has fallen sharply over the past four decades

Share of the work force in a union, by industry

Source: Current Population Survey, via unionstats.com

By The New York Times

Most of the strike activity this year has been among workers at private companies. That is different from 2018 and 2019, which saw an unusual uptick in walkouts in the public sector when public school teachers organized the “Red for Ed” education strikes to demand raises and increased school funding.

Official government statistics include only strikes involving 1,000 or more workers. A database maintained by Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, which includes strikes of all sizes, has recorded 251 work stoppages so far this year, hundreds more than the government’s tally.

“Those are not just the big strikes that are in the news, but there are many smaller strikes across every industry,” said Kate Bronfenbrenner, a senior lecturer at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. It remains to be seen whether this unusual moment of labor activity will continue, particularly as the job market eventually cools and workers lose bargaining power.

Some, like Dr. Bronfenbrenner, see the resurgence of strikes and union organizing as a lasting trend. Surveys have shown increased public support for unions in recent years, she said, even as private sector union membership remains low. About 67 percent of Americans say they approve of labor unions, according to a poll taken in August by Gallup, up from 54 percent a decade ago. More than a third of respondents said they thought that unions would become stronger in the future than they are today, compared with just 19 percent in 2018.

“When you have large strikes that are like waves across the country, they are contagious,” said Dr. Bronfenbrenner.

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