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Why workers are resorting to more strikes this year to pressure companies

Fliers from a recent UAW strike in Chicago.
Jim Vondruska
Getty Images
Fliers from a recent UAW strike in Chicago.

Fifty years ago, in the early 1970s, Joe Uehlein was a construction worker in Pennsylvania, building a bridge over the Susquehanna River.

The job was dangerous – leaks in some of the structures placed in the river put the workers' lives in danger of drowning. But Uehlein's boss was ignoring these concerns.

"He wouldn't allow us to stop. He just wanted us to bail the water out and then keep working," Uehlein said. So Uehlein and a couple hundred of his colleagues took matters into their own hands: they went on strike for three days.

The strike was a success. Construction workers got a health and safety representative as a result.

Walkouts among workers were common from post-World War II through the 1970s. But the early 1980s ushered in an era of crackdowns on striking workers, causing strike activity to plummet – the effects of which workers are still feeling today.

But this has been a watershed year. So far in 2023, there have been 22 major work stoppages, meaning strikes involving at least 1,000 workers, according to preliminary data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: 17 of those strikes have been at companies, making it the largest number strikes in the private sector since 2011.

Hot labor summer for workers from all over

The inequities of the pandemic, coupled with inflation, has fueled a rise in worker unrest. Many have walked off their jobs to demand better pay and benefits, as many unions negotiate their first contracts since the pandemic began.

On the heels of a so-called "hot labor summer," workers in a wide range of sectors are still on strike, from autoworkers at the Detroit Three to hotel workers and Hollywood actors in Los Angeles.

Labor experts say this year's high-profile private-sector strikes – many of which are yielding concrete gains for unions – could mark another turning point in the U.S. labor movement.

Cost for workers is high

Of course, strikes can come at a high cost to workers, who often don't get paid when they walk off their job. Even though UAW has been paying $500 a week to its union members, who are on strike, not every union does that.

UAW president Sean Fain, who has become the face of the historic autoworkers strike, has acknowledged that strikes aren't ideal. They disrupt the economy and workers' paychecks, but it is often the most powerful tool tool that they have.

"We don't want to be out here on strike," Fain said recently. "We're going to do whatever the hell we got to do to get it."

Among those who have walked off the job this year are more than 75,000 Kaiser Permanente healthcare workers, from coast to coast. They went on strike for three days in early October, after their unions failed to reach an agreement with Kaiser management for a new contract.

"It seems like this not for profit organization could share some of those profits with the people who are actually doing the work," said Brinda Christian, a pharmacist at Kaiser who was out on the picket line in Virginia.

The Kaiser unions reached a deal just one week after the strike, securing a 21% pay raise over the length of the contract.

"A voice and a seat at the table"

"This agreement demonstrates what is possible when workers have a voice and a seat at the table," acting U.S. Labor Secretary Julie Su said during a press conference. "Collective bargaining works. It may not always look pretty. But unions have, throughout our nation's history, built the middle class."

Other unions have also used strikes as a ploy to push their employers to give more generous compensation and other benefits. The United Auto Workers' ongoing walkout against the Big Three carmakers has pushed General Motors to include electric vehicle battery workers in the next contract – and it has led to a tentative agreement with Ford, which includes pay raises of roughly 25% and job security gains.

The Teamsters union's threat of a strike against UPS this summer prompted the package delivery company to concede to many of the union's demands in a historic deal with a $7.50 per hour raise over the length of the contract, thus averting a nationwide walkout.

Cornell University researcher Johnnie Kallas has been tracking this activity and says that workers who work in the private sector have had a big uptick.

"Strikes (this year) are certainly more rooted in the private sector, and that's important because that's where unions have been weakest," Kallas said.

Big strikes of the 1970s were followed by a big chill

But despite the current surge in momentum for unions and high-profile labor actions, this year's figures pale in comparison to the hundreds of major strikes that took place each year through the 1970s. In 1970, there were 381 large strikes involving roughly 2.5 million workers, according to the labor department.

However, a turning point came in 1981, when President Reagan fired more than 11,000 striking air traffic controllers represented by the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, or PATCO.

That sent a chill through unions. Uehlein was a labor organizer at the time. He said Reagon's actions "lent legitimacy to the corporate onslaught that followed."

The data reflects the impact of Reagan's union-busting. After 1981, there was a steep drop in the number of big strikes for decades, meaning those involving at least 1,000 workers, from hundreds to just a few dozen each year.

An entire generation who don't know what a picket line is

Joseph McCartin, a labor historian at Georgetown University, said the disappearance of strikes since the early 1980s gave rise to a generation of workers who had never been part of a collective action, some of whom had never seen a picket line.

Union membership declined. In 1983, about 20% of workers were members of unions – compared to just 10% in 2022, according to the labor department.

The labor movement may not be where it was 50 years ago. But today, McCartin says, workers and unions are once again embracing strikes as leverage, as they fight for better pay and benefits.

"I think it's quite possible we look back at this moment and this time as a turning point as well – a turn away from the kind of dynamics that have defined power in the American workplace since the 1980s," McCartin said.

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Danielle Kaye
Danielle Kaye (she/her) is a 2022-2023 Kroc Fellow. Before joining NPR, Kaye worked as a business reporter at Reuters, where she covered compensation policies and union organizing at technology and retail companies. She graduated from UC Berkeley in 2021 with degrees in Global Studies and French. While studying in Berkeley, Kaye reported and produced for listener-funded radio station KPFA, covering protests and housing issues in California for KPFA's morning public affairs show. She was also a researcher at UC Berkeley's Human Rights Investigations Lab and a news reporter and editor at the student-run newspaper The Daily Californian. Kaye lived with a host family in Dakar, Senegal, in 2019, which inspired her to write her senior thesis about threats to Senegal's artisanal fishing communities.