November 15, 2021
From Spectre Journal

By now you will have read about the strikes of 2021. For one thing, there are more of them, some in industries where we haven’t seen many strikes for a while, like retail, entertainment, or major manufacturing firms; others are in areas that became more strike-prone in recent years, like health care and education – almost all where workers were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. For the more cautious commentators, this has been an “uptick” in walkouts, while former Labor Secretary Robert Reich has imaginatively suggested it was, “in its own disorganized way,” a general strike. Most accounts of this visible surge in strike activity place it in the context of the recent economic conjuncture.

The immediate conditions encouraging strike action are mostly sought in the unique labor “shortages” in which (aside even from those down with the virus) workers have voluntarily left their jobs in search of better pay and conditions in record numbers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics calls these “quits” and records an unprecedented 4.3 million of them by August of this year. Those in trade, transportation, and utilities and leisure and hospitality alone accounted for almost half of these.1 On the other hand, private sector layoffs are down from a year earlier and job openings up by over two-thirds to 9.6 million, while hirings are nearly flat.2 Bosses need more workers, and workers have become more choosey and assertive.

While some call it “The Great Resignation” due to all the “quits,” others have labelled it the “Great Discontent” for the underlying anger that leads to action whether a quit or a strike.  For one thing, the quit rate had been growing more or less steadily since the first signs of recovery after the 2008-2010 Great Recession. For another, a Gallup poll in March 2021 found that 48 percent of “America’s working population is actively job searching or watching for opportunities,” far more than the 2.9 percent actually quitting.3 So, job dissatisfaction has reigned throughout the workforce for some time before reaching its all-time high in August 20201. For this reason, I believe it is more helpful to see the “quit” rate as a measure of job dissatisfaction, on the one hand, and the confidence to act, on the other, rather than a direct cause of strikes.

At the same time, millions of under-paid workers have discovered, if they didn’t already know, that they were “essential” to society’s functioning—even as their bosses continued to abuse, overwork, and underpay them. This, too, contributed to the willingness to strike. On top of that, after falling during the spread of the pandemic in the spring of 2020, domestic non-financial corporate profits soared by 70 percent to a record $1.8 trillion by the second quarter of 2021 so the employers have a harder time claiming poverty should their workers take notice and take a stand. Matters were certainly helped by the 450 union contracts, many covering over 1000 workers that expired in 2021. Altogether it’s been a good time to strike.

But there is more to this apparent trend in militancy than a favorable labor market. To look a little deeper into this we need to examine what came before. The strikes of 2021 did not come out of nowhere. Table I shows the total number of strikes, those considered “major” by the BLS with 1,000 or more strikers, and the total number of strikers for the past six years.

Digression of Strike Statistics

Before analyzing these and related numbers, however, a discussion of strike figures is necessary. Since the Reagan administration discontinued the BLS count of all work stoppages after 1981, there is no official count of all strikes and lockouts. The BLS counts only strikes of 1,000 or more workers. Until 2021, the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS) counted all work stoppages directly involved in mostly private sector collective bargaining. So strikes such as those of the West Virginia teachers and others in in 2018 and 2019 were not included since they were in effect strikes against the West Virginia legislature. Neither were most public sector strikes unless the union or employer appealed to the FMCS for mediation. So, even combining the BLS major strikes with the FMCS figures would not necessarily produce a totally accurate count. The Biden Administration has let the FMCS count lapse and it is no longer available on the FMCS website, making matters worse. Strikes by railroad and airline workers are counted by the National Mediation Board under the terms of the Railway Labor Act. There have been none of these, however, in the years we are looking at.

This year, on the other hand, the Cornell University Industrial and Labor Relations program has begun tracking of all strikes via Google and social media. Even more recently, Jonah Furman of Labor Notes began recording strikes and organizing efforts in his “Who Gets the Dog” weekly online report. I have used all of these sources to produce the most accurate count of strikes possible with the existing materials, but it is likely some have been missed. It is these figures used in Table I and throughout this article which will differ at times from and are more accurate than the available BLS or FMCS counts alone. They are cited under Tables I and II and won’t be cited each time they are used subsequently.

Three things stand out from these figures. First, the total number of strikes in the first ten months of 2021 is far greater than those of the previous five years. On the other hand, the number of strikers is not larger than for all previous years. In general, the number of strikes has been declining since 1980 and fell even further after the great Recession of 2008, hitting a low of 76 in 2018. 2021 is, thus, the first year of a significant uptick in the total number of strikes. But as Table I shows, the number of strikers in 2021 does not even come close to match those of 2018 and 2019, which saw massive teacher strikes sweep the country. In fact, prior to 2021, the bulk of strikes have come from public school education and mostly private health care workers. These are workers who are less affected by economic ups and downs than most, although their quit rates also rose indicating significant job dissatisfaction. Of course, they are workers facing conditions common to much of the working class and their strikes count in the bigger class struggle as much as those of other more “industrial” workers.