2018 Was A Banner Year For Strikes

After years of weak bargaining power, U.S. workers finally went on strike in massive numbers.
Teachers rally outside the Arizona Capitol in April, on their third day of walkouts. It was just one of a number of teacher strikes last year.
Teachers rally outside the Arizona Capitol in April, on their third day of walkouts. It was just one of a number of teacher strikes last year.

The official numbers bear it out: Last year really was the year of the strike.

More U.S. workers were involved in major work stoppages in 2018 than in any other year since 1986, the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced Friday. The number of stoppages was also the highest since the Great Recession began in 2007.

It’s no mystery as to why the number of workers ― 485,000 ― was so high. Hundreds of thousands of teachers walked off the job in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona and elsewhere to demand more school funding and higher pay. The historic teacher walkouts lasted anywhere from one day to two weeks, with the red-clad school workers coining it the Red For Ed movement.

The largest of those strikes measured by days idle ― that is, the total number of workdays missed by all strikers ― was Arizona, where 81,000 public employees were off the job a total of 486,000 days. The second largest was Oklahoma, where 45,000 workers had 405,000 idle days.

But the 20 major work stoppages tracked by the government were not all in the public sector. (BLS defines a major work stoppage as one involving at least a thousand workers.) Among the largest was a successful multicity strike at Marriott hotels waged by the hospitality union Unite Here. Some 6,000 workers in California, Hawaii, Massachusetts and Michigan won higher pay, better benefits and some new protections against automation from the hotel chain.

The Communications Workers of America waged a major strike involving 1,400 workers at the telecom company Frontier Communications in West Virginia in March. Thousands of CWA members at AT&T also went on strike over a 5-day period in June in the Midwest.

It makes plenty of sense that the number of striking workers has shot up relative to 2007. The economy has improved greatly since then, bringing low unemployment and greater competition for workers. The tight labor market would be making strikes less risky on the whole, as employees wield far more bargaining power than they did during the downturn.

The government does not track strikes per se but work stoppages. That term includes not only strikes, which are initiated by workers, but also lockouts, which are initiated by management. Lockouts are basically the opposite of a strike, where workers are off the job against their will. The lockout of United Steelworkers members at National Grid, the gas and electric utility, was the longest work stoppage of the year. It began last June and didn’t end until January of this year.

Even though the government does not distinguish between strikes and lockouts in its figures, it’s safe to say last year saw the highest number of strikers in years, if only because of the massive number of teachers who walked out. Workers in education, health care and social services made up more than 90 percent of those involved in the stoppages last year, BLS said.

So far, 2019 is shaping up to be another big year for teacher strikes, as the walkouts that began last year have spread to more liberal enclaves. More than 30,000 teachers and school staffers in Los Angeles went on strike for the first time in decades last month for a six-day stretch, while teachers in Denver may be walking off the job any day now.

Meanwhile, teachers in West Virginia may not be done with their walkouts. Local unions across the state are holding strike votes this week as the GOP-controlled legislature moves to establish charter schools in the state.

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