Posted by: Doug Henwood | August 18, 2010

Strike wave!

There are many ways to measure the death of organized labor as a social force in the U.S. Here’s what might be the most objective one: the virtual disappearance of labor’s ultimate weapon, the strike.

The graph above shows the annual number of major strikes, as tallied by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. (The front page for all their strike/lockout stats is here: Work Stoppages Home Page.) The figure for 2010 annualizes what we’ve experienced so far this year. The little uptick, from a total of 5 in 2009 to 20 in 2010, was boosted by a strike by 15,000 public sector construction workers in Chicago in July. Their strike produced 180,000 lost workdays last month, the highest total since 600,000 in October 2008. These numbers are nothing when compared to the peak of labor’s power, from the 1950s through the 1970s, when we saw as much as 60 million lost workdays a year, or 0.4% of the total number worked economy-wide (the record, set in 1959). Heck, it’s nothing compared even to 2000’s 20 million lost days, or 0.06% of the total.

All those right-wingers who long for the good old days of the 1950s might want to reconsider.

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Responses

  1. Pity that there is no data on the wave of undeclared strikes that are implicit in workforce disengagement. Employers have reneged on providing security; workers on providing loyalty. Folks can now go to work and continue their strike on full pay, just so long as they don’t join a union and don’t let their disengagement show. The net effect on productivity may even be higher.

  2. “All those right-wingers who long for the good old days of the 1950’s might want to reconsider.”

    Yes, indeed: let’s go back to the tax rates in existence under that Old Bolshevik, Dwight D. Eisenhower.

  3. … but it’s also an indicator for the decline of mass production and fordism.

  4. Ingo, actually, it’s not just Fordism: a well-targeted strike could cripple any number of firms that depend on just-in-time inventory – manufacturers like auto companies or retailers like Wal-Mart. A single strike at a parts plant could disrupt auto production in several countries. A strike at a port like Long Beach could interfere with Wal-Mart’s entire North American supply chain.

  5. What about in China?

    Volcker and Reagan really broke the back of labor. And these days Volcker is considered a voice of sanity and restraint.

  6. Doug has it right – the rising organic composition of capital means fewer workers are needed to perform the work, but at the same time it gives, objectively, more power to workers at crucial choke points in the economy. I’m sure those workers at least implicitly realize this. The problem is rather:

    1. Decreasing combativeness of union leadership – I don’t remember a major union leader in my lifetime (since 1980) who was truly combative with management and with the political system in general. There are really no more Big Bill Heywoods, let alone Shankers.

    1A. If the above is true, it has a lot to do with the symbiosis of the major unions and the Democratic Party, and the Democratic Party’s major donor base shifting to free-trade supporting FIRE sectors. The unions won’t leave the Dems, and the Dems will throw unions a bone here and there, but the overall economic policy of the Democratic Party is anti-union.

    2. Rise of service workers/outsourcing – so if the old-line industrial sector has dealt with the above, the other part must be the growth of the service economy, which doesn’t seem to lend itself to strikes and organizing in the same was as factory-based labor. Maybe it’s possible – if we had card-check for unions and everyone was part of a bigger industrial rather than craft union, service workers could be organized rather effectively. Perhaps Mr. Henwood has stats on this for other countries? Regardless it seems like the consciousness and combativeness of service-sector workers is far different than their industrial counterparts.

    None of this is insurmountable, but it will clearly take education, organizing, and probably the growth of a mass labor party to change.

  7. “workforce disengagement”: I don’t think so. In today’s workplace, the bosses drive to extract more profit from fewer workers makes this impossible. The threat of layoffs has few taking their eyes off their knitting.

    If what is meant workers identification with “their” company- that boat pretty much sailed awhile ago. Most workers are only too keenly aware that they are never too far removed becoming WalMart greeters.

    Strikes are singular events. Passive agressive “disengagement” will get us nowhere. A strike means a conscious active “engagement” for action.

    What the chart suggests is that organized labor is hopelessly disorganized.

    Either organized labor is circling the historical drain, or we will be entering a period of working class stuggle from which a new model will emerge. I prefer to believe it will be the latter, but this is by no means certain.

  8. [...] Strike wave! There are many ways to measure the death of organized labor asa social force in the U.S. Here’s what might be the most objective one:the virtual disappearance of labor’s ultimate weapon, the strike. http://lbo-news.com/2010/08/18/strike-wave/ [...]

  9. [...] If you want to understand why this is happening, why wages in the US keep getting cut, this chart from Doug Henwood tells the [...]

  10. [...] Doug Henwood explains: The graph above shows the annual number of major strikes, as tallied by the Bureau of Labor [...]

  11. [...] the past 30 years, as Doug Henwood has shown, strikes have fallen off considerably; that this year had both a major strike of Chicago’s [...]

  12. [...] are some things to note about this. First, unlike many other metrics that measure strikes, this measures strikers. In many cases, I think that will be a much measurement to really [...]

  13. [...] initially seem to be the case. In a moment marked by staggeringly low rates of union density and declining militancy, the push by the Fashion Police writers for union recognition and industry-standard contracts is [...]

  14. […] a moment marked by staggeringly low rates of union density and declining militancy, the push by the Fashion Police writers for union recognition and industry-standard contracts is […]


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