The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, February 21, 2020

Number of striking workers surge in 2018-19

By The Building Tradesman

The strike is back.

After decades of declining strike activity, data on major work stoppages from the Bureau of Labor Statistics—including new 2019 data released Feb. 11 —show that there was a substantial upsurge in 2018 and 2019, with 485,000 workers involved in major work stoppages in 2018 and 425,500 workers involved in major stoppages in 2019.

Together they make up the highest two-year average in 35 years. In 2017, only 25,300 workers were involved in work stoppages. The average number of workers involved in work stoppages between 2010 and 2019 was 147,660. Work stoppages are primarily composed of striking workers. 

“Even though we are 10 years into an economic recovery and the unemployment rate is under 4 percent, working people are still not seeing the kinds of robust wage growth that those at the top have seen for decades,” said Economic Policy Institute Policy Director Heidi Shierholz. “The increase in strike numbers shows that workers understand that joining together in collective action remains an effective way to raise wages and benefits, and improve working conditions.”

In 2019, there were 10 work stoppages involving at least 20,000 workers, the largest number since 1993, when BLS began providing data that made it possible to track work stoppages by size. The largest strike involved nearly 50,000 workers walking out of General Motors factories across the country with the goal of preserving job security, improving wages, and retaining health care benefits. The six-week strike ended with a United Auto Workers contract that improved wages, stayed health care costs, and committed investments for American factories.

Also in 2019, 30,000 workers went on strike at Stop & Shop, a New England-based grocery chain, over a drastic increase in health care costs. The 11-day strike concluded with the United Food and Commercial workers and Stop & Shop agreeing to a contract that preserved health care benefits, increased wages, and maintained time-and-a-half pay on Sunday for current employees.

“The resurgence in recent strike activity has occurred despite current policy that makes it difficult for many workers to effectively engage in their fundamental right to strike,” said EPI Policy Associate Margaret Poydock. “Corporate influence has eroded labor law and allowed worker protections to stagnate. We need fundamental labor law reforms like the PRO Act in order to bring worker protections into the 21st century.”

The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which would expand the scope of lawful strikes and prohibit employers from permanently replacing striking workers.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the majority of the 425,500 workers who were involved in major work stoppages that began in 2019, came from the educational services industry (270,000) in  span of 13 work stoppages. The longest ongoing stoppage, the BLS said, is a dispute between Charter Communications and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 3 that started in March 2017 and presently involves 1,800 workers idled for 695 work days.

The increase in strikes don't appear to be helping to increase union membership, although they may be helping to slow the losses. Overall union membership in the U.S. dropped to an all-time low of 13.6 percent last year. 

While union numbers are dropping, public support isn't. A Gallup survey last year found that 64 percent of people said they approved of unions last year, among the highest numbers the company has collected in the last 50 years. And nearly half of nonunion workers say they would join a union if given the opportunity to do so — a 40-year high.

“The way that huge upsurges in union membership have happened in this country is when workers have taken control, gone on massive strikes and forced corporate elite to enter grand bargains,” said Jane McAlevey, a former labor organizer and the author of A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing and the Fight for Democracy.

McAlevey told the Washington Post that previous spikes of unionization - such as in the 1930s and 1950s - were preceded by large scale strikes. “Strikes are a precursor,” she said. "I believe we’re at the beginning of that cycle.”