Strikes disappear again in 2020

Last year’s biggest strike was at the Seattle-based hospital chain Swedish Medical Centers. A three-day walkout Jan. 28-31 by 7,800 members of SEIU Local 1199NW ended with wage increases of 13.5% over the life of the contract, and new zero-premium health coverage for employees who earn less than $60,000 annually.

By Don McIntosh

It’s starting to look like the strike surge of 2018-2019 was a blip, not the start of a new trend. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) tracks work stoppages involving over 1,000 workers, and every year releases a summary of the previous year’s work stoppages (a term that includes both worker strikes and employer lockouts). BLS tallied only seven eight such stoppages in 2020.

From the 1950s to the 1970s, there were hundreds of large strikes a year, but strikes fell off dramatically in the 1980s, and became nearly extinct by 2009, when there were just five, and 2017, when there were seven. [See the year-by-year numbers here.]

But a wave of teacher strikes that started in West Virginia in 2018 bolstered the annual tally. There were 20 large work stoppages in 2018, involving 485,000 American workers, the most in 33 years. And in 2019, 25 major work stoppages involved 425,000 workers.

Last year, just 27,000 workers took part in the large work stoppages included in the report. The nation’s biggest work stoppage in 2020 was a three-day strike at Swedish Medical Centers in Seattle by 7,800 members of SEIU Local 1199NW. SEIU was a party to four of last year’s seven large work stoppages. Here’s the full list:

  • Swedish Medical Centers (Seattle, Wash.) 7,800 members of SEIU Local 1199NW, 3 days
  • University of Illinois (Chicago, Ill.) 4,500 members of SEIU Local 73, 10 days
  • Bath Iron Works (Bath, Maine) 4,300 members of Machinists Local S6, 44 days
  • Alameda Health System (San Francisco area) 3,000 members of SEIU Local 1021, Californian Nurses Association, and ILWU, 5 days
  • St. Paul Public Schools (St. Paul, Minn.) 3,600 members of St. Paul Federation of Educators, 3 days
  • Cook County (Chicago, Ill.) 1,600 members of SEIU Local 73, 1 day
  • University of Michigan (Ann Arbor, Mich.) 1,200 members of Graduate Employees’ Organization Local 3550,  7 days
  • San Joaquin County (Calif.) 1,000 members of California Nurses Association and SEIU Local 1021, 2 days

[CORRECTION: When this first posted, BLS annual report said there were seven work stoppages involving at least 1,000 workers in 2020. Because of that, we reported that 2020 tied with 2017 for the second lowest level recorded since the annual reports started in 1947. Then a reader called attention to the fact that the tally was missing a strike by 3,000 workers at Alameda Health System in California. We contacted BLS, they corrected the report, and this article has been updated.]

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