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More American Workers Are Going Out on Strike!

February 11, 2020

By Steve Wishnia

More American workers are deciding that striking is the best way to reclaim their power.

WASHINGTON—Led by a wave of walkouts by fed-up teachers, the last two years have seen more American workers go out on strike than any time since the 1980s, according to figures released by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics Feb. 11.

The BLS reported that 425,500 workers were involved in 25 “major work stoppages” that included 1,000 or more workers and lasted at least one shift. That was less than the 485,000 strikers of 2018, but a huge increase over the near-record low of 25,000 in 2017. While the number of workers striking averaged over 1 million a year in the 1970s, it fell off sharply after President Ronald Reagan fired striking air-traffic controllers in 1981. The last time the number of strikers exceeded 400,000 was in 1989.

“These strike statistics represent nothing less than a sea change in America,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in a statement. “Working people—completely fed up with an economic and political system that does not work for us—are turning to each other and using every tool at our disposal to win a better deal.”

There were 10 strikes last year that involved more than 20,000 workers, with the six-week walkout by 46,000 United Auto Workers members seeking a better contract with General Motors the biggest in terms of lost workdays. But almost two-thirds of 2019’s strikers were teachers and other education workers: Six of the 10 largest strikes were by teachers in North Carolina, West Virginia, Los Angeles, Chicago, Kentucky, and Oregon.

The year’s other massive strikes were by the United Food and Commercial Workers at Stop & Shop supermarkets, for 11 days in April; the one-day walkouts by service and technical workers at the University of California, represented by AFSCME Local 3299 and University Professional and Technical Employees-CWA 9119; and a four-day unfair-labor-practice strike against AT&T Southeast by the Communications Workers of America in August, which the union called “the largest private-sector strike in the South in a decade.” 

The longest-running strike, according to the BLS, is by about 1,800 International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 3 at the Spectrum cable-TV network owned by Charter Communications, which has gone on for almost three years.

The BLS figures also count locked-out workers as strikers. But they underestimate the total number of striking workers, because they don’t include work stoppages that involve less than 1,000 workers or last less than one full shift—such as the mini-strikes by fast-food workers, or the strikes by and lockouts of symphony-orchestra musicians in Chicago and Baltimore.

Three factors likely have contributed to the dramatic increase in strikes. Support for labor unions has resurged significantly. Many employers are seeking concessions such as having workers pay more for health care, as General Motors and Stop & Shop tried. (Spectrum, which wants to eliminate workers’ pensions and is operating with strikebreakers while trying to decertify Local 3, might be the most aggressively intransigent.) And wages are being outstripped by the escalating costs of necessities like housing, health care, and education.

“While unemployment is low, wages have not increased to keep up with the cost of living,” AFL-CIO spokesperson Kalina Newman told LaborPress.

“Workers are concluding that if even a sub-4% unemployment rate is not providing them with enough leverage to secure robust wage growth, they must join together to demand a fair share of the recovery,” the Economic Policy Institute said in its analysis.

EPI policy associate Margaret Poydock, coauthor of that report, credits “solidarity.” The West Virginia teachers’ strikes of 2018 and 2019 were technically illegal under state law, she points out, but the support of the community, parents, and students “empowered them to strike for better pay.”

The resurgence in strike activity, Poydock said in the report, has occurred “despite current policy that makes it difficult for many workers to effectively engage in their fundamental right to strike.” Most states prohibit public-sector workers such as teachers from striking. Intermittent strikes, the one- to three-day walkouts often used by health-care workers who want to send a message without leaving their patients in the care of strikebreakers, are not protected by federal labor law. (Hospitals often hire scab nurses on five-day contracts and refuse to let union nurses return to work until those five days are up.)

In the private sector, federal law protects workers involved in strikes against unfair labor practices, but those in economic strikes, demanding better pay or benefits, can legally be permanently replaced. Employers generally agreed not to do that while labor unions were strongest, between 1950 and 1980, but Reagan firing the air-traffic controllers ended that custom.

The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, passed by the House on Feb. 6, would outlaw the permanent replacement of strikers, legalize intermittent strikes, and extend the right to be reinstated after a walkout to undocumented-immigrant workers. But its chances of passing the Senate this year are virtually nil. Staffers for Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, told the Washington Post that the committee will not consider it this session.

February 11, 2020

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