The Strike Returns


It’s official: 2023 had more big strikes than any year since 2000. According to the most recent annual report on strike activity by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 2023 saw 33 major work stoppages, defined as a strike or lockout involving more than 1,000 workers and lasting at least one shift during a weekday. 

Last year’s work major stoppages involved 458,900 workers. That’s almost double the three previous years combined, and it’s a return to the levels of the massive teacher strike wave of 2018 and 2019. The biggest strike in 2023 was the 82-day strike by 160,000 members of the Screen Actors Guild, followed by the three-day strike by 75,600 members of three unions at Kaiser Permanente; the three-day strike by 65,000 workers at Los Angeles Unified School District; and the gradually expanding 31-day strike at Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis by 49,800 members of United Auto Workers.

The majority of the strikes lasted less than a week, but some were much longer. The longest major work stoppage that began in 2023 was a 104-day strike by 2,300 members of the Graduate Employees Organization at University of Michigan. The next longest was the 102-day strike by 11,500 members of Writers Guild of America against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.

Strike levels are still far below the levels of the 1950s to the 1970s, when there were hundreds of large strikes a year. The all-time record was 1952, with 470 large work stoppages. Strikes fell off dramatically in the 1980s, declining to an all-time low of five in 2009. 

Of course, “major” work stoppages are only part of the picture of overall strike activity. What about strikes of less than 1,000 workers? BLS used to track that but stopped in the early 1980s. To fill the gap, several private organizations have produced estimates in recent years.

Labor Action Tracker 

In 2021, Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR) publicly launched its Labor Action Tracker, an online database of work stoppages and labor protests. The project is now managed by five researchers from ILR and University of Illinois’ School of Labor and Employment Relations (LER). 

Because the Labor Action Tracker defines strike more broadly as “a temporary stoppage of work by a group of workers in order to express a grievance or enforce a demand,” it captured a broader range of actions than the BLS report. It documented 466 strikes involving about 540,000 workers in 2023. Roughly 90% of the work stoppages recorded by the tracker involved less than 1,000 workers, according to its annual report. 

Like BLS, the tracker has documented an overall rise of strike activity — in the total number of work stoppages, the number of workers involved in strikes, and in total strike days — in the last three years. But researchers noted the numbers are still considerably lower than the 1970s and before. 

The Labor Action Tracker researchers rely on news coverage, social media posts, union and employer press releases, and other strike databases to verify that a strike or protest actually happened and fill in details about its size, duration, location, and reason. Events that can be confirmed by at least two independent sources are added to the tracker and published in an online, searchable database at

Senior research assistant Kathryn Ritchie admits that the tracker has gaps of its own: If researchers can’t verify a strike or labor protest with two sources or don’t hear about it at all, they can’t add it to the database. 

“A good amount of the strikes I have found but we couldn’t verify are from locals that don’t post (on social media) and, if we reach out to them, we are not able to establish contact,” Ritchie said. “That’s definitely an issue with our data, which means at the end of the day, I don’t think we even have a full picture.” 

But because the Labor Action Tracker picks up more detailed information than BLS can, it paints a more complete picture of the labor movement. For example, it showed that in about 22% of 2023’s strikes, workers on the picket line did not belong to a union. Those strikes tend to be much smaller and shorter than union strikes, so they wouldn’t make it into BLS data, said project manager Johnnie Kallas said. But they still show the power of collective action; one strike led by non-union workers at a movie theater in Utah results in $2.50 an hour raises for workers there, he said. 

Striking new patterns

The business news organization Bloomberg Law has also kept a database of work stoppages since 1990, and in February, it produced a 30-page special report on union strike activity in 2023. The database relies on published news sources, union publications, Bloomberg’s own publications, and government reports to produce an estimate.

Bloomberg found 347 work stoppages in 2023, almost one per day somewhere in the United States. And only two of those were employer lockouts; all the rest were strikes initiated by workers through their unions. Bloomberg said that was the lowest percentage of lockouts since it began keeping track.

According to Bloomberg’s estimate, 2023 had the highest single-year strike total in 20 years and was the third year in a row that strikes have grown. (The 164 strikes Bloomberg documented in 2021 were the highest count since 2007, and 2022 nearly doubled that, with 317 strikes.)

Bloomberg estimated that 530,287 workers were involved in strikes in 2023, more than the previous three years combined. 

Bloomberg’s research also showed that new dynamics are emerging: More than 100 of the strikes were over first contracts, and roughly a fifth of those were strikes for union recognition. Both of those have been rare in recent decades.

Strikes at Starbucks were an important fraction of the year’s strikes, but even if there hadn’t been a single strike at Starbucks, 2023 would have been the busiest strike year since 2005, Bloomberg reported. Coordinated strikes at Starbucks, each targeting over 100 locations, were counted as single events in Bloomberg’s tally.


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