Each year in February, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports on work stoppages that occurred in the prior year. The 2019 numbers won’t be out for another couple of months, but it seems like strikes are becoming popular again. The General Motors (GM) strike got a lot of attention because of the number of employees involved and the size of the company. There have been numerous smaller strikes and work stoppages taking place in 2019. The question is, why are they becoming more prevalent?
Are unions gaining more influence again after years of declining membership? They seem to be, for several reasons, thus making it more challenging to stay union-free.
In 2018, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported 20 major work stoppages involving 485,000 workers, which is the highest number of workers involved since 1986. 2019 is likely to exceed that. The BLS includes strikes and lockouts in the term “work stoppage.” The unions track the numbers, of course, and in the last week of October, at least 85,000 employees were participating in 13 different strikes.
A few of the strikes that occurred in 2019:
- Teachers went on strike in multiple states – including Arizona, Arkansas, California, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Illinois – for higher pay, stronger health insurance, smaller class sizes, increased support staff, etc.
- Sanitation workers for Republic Services in Marshfield, Massachusetts (extended into Georgia) wanted affordable health care and a living wage.
- ASARCO copper workers in Arizona and Texas went on strike over pension freezes; no raises and increasing health insurance costs
- Striking Mack Truck employees in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Florida asked for a host of concessions concerning wage increases, holiday schedules, shift premium pay, higher retirement contributions, the use of subcontractors and temporary workers, safety, health care, etc.
- General Motors striking employees wanted higher wages, a path for temporary workers to become permanent employees, retention of the health care costs, and an end to a two-tier wage system.
- Nurses in California, Arizona, Florida, and Illinois walked out to push management to invest more in the recruitment and retention of experienced RNs and to increase staffing levels.
This is just a sample of the 2019 strikes that took place, occurring across states and industries. There have also been walkouts by professional/salaried employees, graduate students, and contracted tech workers that have some of the same impacts as strikes by union workers.
These groups don’t have protection from union contracts or Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act. This gives employees the right to engage in concerted activities (and strikes) for collective bargaining. Walking out to “make a point” or air a complaint is not collective bargaining.
So Many Reasons to Strike
What are the reasons for so many workers striking, despite a growing economy and low employment? Is it leadership communication problems or aggressive unions or something else? It depends on your source of information, but here are some of the reasons:
Workers don’t believe they’re sharing in the economic boom that is helping their companies grow, despite making wage and benefits concessions during the post-recession period of austerity
A pro-union Democratic Party has encouraged unions to become more active and supports strikers verbally and by having public figures attend support events for strikers.
2020 Democratic Presidential candidates are publicly supporting unions during debates, on campaign trips, and in the news media.
- Workers are inspired by the success of successful strikers who have received pay and benefits increases and other concessions
- A tight labor market and the low unemployment rate is making workers more confident about getting better salaries and benefits because finding qualified replacements is difficult.
- Publicity about high executive salaries and enormous profits of Wall Street companies, including banks, created worker discontent.
- Employees in some companies believe employers only care about making a profit for the sake of the well-being of their employees and don’t care about creating a respectful workplace.
- Employees in many industries fear technologies like automation, Artificial Intelligence, and robotics will replace them soon.
- Younger generations (millennials and Gen Z) are showing a growing interest in the power of alternative organizing efforts to reach goals, and unions are specifically targeting them as a source of future membership.
Like a Rolling Stone
Like a rolling stone, workers are more willing to strike when they see other strikes working. This is per Jane McAlevey, a veteran labor organizer and author. During an interview, she explains her perspective on the growing number of strikes. McAlevey believes that it was a Chicago teachers strike in 2012, supported by the community, that started the trend leading to a large number of strikes in 2018. The teachers won a significant pay raise, preference to be rehired by a district after a layoff, and a changed evaluation system.
The long-term significance of the strike is that it created a strong “union force” that continued flexing its muscles. In 2016, Chicago teachers, motivated by their Chicago strike success, supported Bernie Sanders run for President, which led to teachers in West Virginia becoming informed about unions and then organizing. From there, it spread to employees across industries who were seeing workers strike and win.
McAlevey was also asked about climate change youth activists and students using the word “strike” for planned global action. McAlevey supported their use of the word and said, “And if they’re closing down schools and shuttering facilities, I think that’s a great way for young people to raise the stakes and the debate about the climate crisis.” This preps the next generations to support formal strikes at any cost once they become employees.
Seeing Other People’s Struggles as Their Own
Union members thrive by creating a feeling of belonging in its members. They support each other. When union employees strike for job security or fair wages, it inspires worry in other workers in other companies. Will their benefits or jobs be cut in the future? Can a union help? As journalist Juliana Feliciano Reyes wrote in The Philadelphia Inquirer about non-GM union members who showed up to join the picket line and participate in support activities like potlucks, “They saw the United Auto Workers strike as their own struggle.”
Strikes can involve a few employees or tens of thousands. The GM strike involved 50,000+ workers and shut down multiple operations. Compare this to when three clerical workers at a DHL facility near Hanover, Baltimore, went on strike over health and retirement benefits. One-hundred (100) of their fellow Local 255 Teamsters, who were couriers at the same facility, honored the picket line, exercising their rights under the National Master DHL Agreement to not cross or work behind a picket line. A few days later, the picket line was extended (also called a “roving strike) to the DHL facility in Philadelphia, where hundreds more declined to cross the picket line.
No two strikes are the same. There is no way to predict how long a strike will last, how many families or suppliers will be harmed by the loss of income or revenues or the financial impact on the employee’s company. Even if businesses have specialty business interruption insurance, their brand and reputation are vigorously attacked by the unions, striking employees, and various supporters who can go online and call for a nationwide boycott of doing business with the company in any way, shape or form. It’s possible to say that there will be negative impacts all around.
What’s Coming in 2020 and Beyond?
Will the number of strikes and work stoppages, and even the number of people going on strike or refusing to cross a picket line increase in 2020? Looking objectively at what occurred in 2019, the answer is “yes.”
The unions are getting strong backing from the Democratic Presidential candidates, meaning they are already getting a lot of free publicity. 2020 is an election year, which means continued cultivation for union voters.
On December 17, 2019, the Democratic Presidential candidates threatened to skip a December 19 debate, if they had to cross a picket line at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles to reach the stage. The Unite Here Local 11 members (cooks, dishwashers, and cashiers at the university) had been in contract talks since March with on-campus food service provider Sodexo, but negotiations were stalled. They reached a tentative agreement in the nick of time, and Unite Here credited the Democratic National Committee and Chair Tom Perez for helping to reach said agreement.
The Democrats are pushing to be seen as the party of the working class again, and strikes give them the opportunity to showcase their support for the “little person.” All indications point to more strikes, strikers, protests, and walkouts in 2020 and beyond.
No Exceptions to Staying Union-Free
Staying union-free or getting to the point where employees want to decertify a union requires leaders to do a lot of positive things for the workforce. They must develop an engaged workforce, effective leadership styles, good communication systems, and positive workplace culture. Employees know they can bring issues to management, get feedback, and receive a resolution with an explanation.
In a UnionProof workplace, there is a good working relationship between the employer and the workforce. Our advice is to recognize that unions have a good chance of growing their memberships once again. Do what is necessary to keep your company union-free, which means becoming an employer of choice.