Strikes were up in 2011, but still extremely rare

The 10-day walkout by Verizon workers on the East Coast was the biggest work stoppage in 2011. Five months after they ended the strike and returned to work, those workers are still without a contract. Above, Portland unionists picket a Verizon Wireless store.

Large-scale strikes and lockouts rose slightly in 2011, according to the numbers released today by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The bureau releases data once a year on what it terms “work stoppages” involving at least 1,000 workers that last at least one day. There were 19 such work stoppages in 2011, up from 11 the previous year.

The 2011 strike with the biggest impact, in terms of lost workdays, was the 10-day strike at Verizon by 45,000 members of Communications Workers of America. Also of note was the four-month lockout by the NFL of 1,900 members of National Football League Players Association.

While going from 11 to 19 strikes is a 72 percent increase, it doesn’t buck the trend: Strikes have almost disappeared in the United States since 1980. The 1950s averaged 352 large-scale work stoppages a year, a record which fell to 283 a year in the 1960s, and 289 a year in the 1970s. Work stoppages then plummeted to 83 a year on average in the 1980s, 35 a year in the 1990s, and 17 a year in the first decade of the 21st century.

And that’s just the number of work stoppages. Strike activity from the 1950s to 1970s also involved more workers, and lasted longer: In a typical year, one to two million workers took part in work stoppages which lasted on average 20 days. Last year’s major work stoppages, by contrast, involved 113,000 workers, who stayed out nine days, on average. Eleven of the 19 large-scale work stoppages last year lasted a week or less, including five hospital strikes that lasted just one or two days.

Two of the 19 large-scale work stoppages in the BLS list were in the Pacific Northwest — an eight-day strike by 1,900 teachers in Tacoma, Washington, and a purported 11-day strike in April by 1,500 members of Oregon-headquartered United Association of Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 290.

But details of the Local 290 work stoppage cast doubt on BLS figures. Al Shropshire, elected Local 290 business manager this January, said intermittent pickets were put up at just three contractors after a multi-employer agreement expired. Picketing occurred on just four or five days, with fewer than 50 members impacted — far less than the 1,500 members covered by the contract. Subsequently, the employer group’s contract offer improved, and a new labor agreement was approved on a close vote.

Most of the time, a work stoppage is a strike by employees. But as the New York Times noted Jan. 22, lockouts — once rare — are increasingly being used by employers to squeeze concessions out of their unionized workers.

Two work stoppages that began last year — both lockouts — continued into 2012:

  • In late November, Cooper Tire and Rubber Company locked out 1,000 members of United Steel Workers Local 207L at its plant in Findlay, Ohio, after they rejected a second round of wage and benefit concessions. The company operated the plant with replacement workers brought in from elsewhere, but locked-out workers were ruled eligible for unemployment benefits. In January, workers ratified a new contract and went back to work.
  • A lockout continues for 1,300 members of Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers in Minnesota, Iowa, and North Dakota. Their employer, American Crystal Sugar Company, is the country’s largest sugar-beet processor.

[For a discussion of WHY the strike disappeared after 1980, here’s a start: PATCO.]

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