Labor Strikes on the Decline

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The days of massive labor strikes and fiery picket lines may be nearing an end in this country. Over the last decade, the number of strikes involving 1,000 or more workers declined to an average of just 20 per year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor. By comparison, there were 35 major strikes a year in the 1990’s and 83 in the 1980’s.

Yet, even with that in mind, last year seemed especially strange. In 2009, the number of work stoppages hit rock bottom with only five major strikes recorded. Is this just a part of a larger trend, or is there another factor at play?

According to USA Today, this decline can be attributed to the fact that union memberships have steadily decreased over the last 60 years. In the 1940’s, about one third of America’s workforce belonged to a union, but as of last year, that number had dropped to just 12.3%. While this may be the primary reason for the decreasing number of strikes from decade to decade, the incredible decline may have more to do with the poor economy.

We examined the Bureau of Labor’s numbers and noticed an interesting correlation between significant year over year drops in the number of people striking and periods of particularly bad economic downturns. Between 1980 and 1982, the number of major strikes (involving 1,000 or more workers) declined from 187 a year to 96, a drop of nearly half. At the same time, these years were ravaged by a bad recession. There was a similar decline in the early 2000’s as the number of strikes dropped from 39 in 2000 to just 19 in 2002, which again corresponds with the short but still bad recession of 2001.

Could that have played a role in the incredibly low number of strikes recorded last year? In 2007, just before the current economic downturn began, there were 21 major strikes. That number declined a bit to 15 in 2008 as the recession took hold and dropped substantially to 5 last year as the economy continued to wallow. It seems reasonable to guess that people are less likely to risk their current positions by taking part in a strike if there are very few other jobs available in the current economy.

This point was echoed by Andrew Sum, the director of the Center for Labor Market Studies in an interview he gave to the Boston Globe back in April. “We’re in a time where workers basically just feel that they’re not in a strong position to contest what firms are offering them,” he said. And as bad as it is to say, it may actually be for the best that fewer labor unions are striking right now.

As CNN Money points out, those who have decided to strike during the recession were not always successful. In one case, 130 workers struck at a cookie factory in New York City, but the business was only just getting by in the bad economy and ended up shutting down all together.

Check out MainStreet’s roundup of the union groups that have decided to go on strike in recent years.

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