Sadly, there is no strike wave

In a September 8 post to the Jacobin website, Eric Dirnbach announced that “US workers are striking again.” In the piece, he discloses:

That’s why it’s fascinating that in 2018, we’re seeing a dramatic increase in the number of large work stoppages. I count sixteen for the first half of the year, including one lockout, which if this trend continues, puts us on track for thirty-two for the full year. The number of large work stoppages has not been thirty or more since the year 2000.

It would be lovely if this were true, but it’s not.

Dirnbach makes it clear in this piece that he doesn’t understand the strike stats at all. (And precision demands noting that the Bureau of Labor Statistics [BLS] calls the series “work stoppages,” because it includes lockouts.) He seems to think the stats are released only annually, but in fact they’re regularly updated and available on the Bureau‘s website.

That data tells us that from January through July (the most recent month available), there were twelve large work stoppages (meaning involving 1,000 workers or more). If that rate is annualized, that would work out to 21 stoppages this year [12/(7/12) = 20.57]. As the top graph below shows, that’s not all that much of a departure from recent experience. That’s just a bit above 2011 and 2012’s 19. It ties 2007’s rate and falls short of 2005’s 22.


And by another measure, the share of workdays of “idleness” (gotta love the Calvinism of labor statisticians)—the number of workdays lost to stoppages (number of strikers times the length of the strike) as a percent of workdays throughout the U.S. economy—is barely off the 0 line, as the second graph shows.

Of course the year isn’t over yet, and anything could happen. But there’s no strike wave underway.

PS: Point of personal privilege—the article uses the lbo-news graph of union density from this article without credit. That’s not nice.

PPS: The Jacobin version was a reprint of a July Medium post. At least that version offered proper credit for the graph.

One Comment on “Sadly, there is no strike wave

  1. Doug is correct. And the official data is likely an understatement since it covers only major work stoppages. That’s the story for the past 20 years. The real question is not why strikes are so few and limited, but ‘WHY’. Is it just conditions. Legal and government attacks. Union leadership timidity. Character of broad sections of the working class that ‘came of age’ during Reagan and after? Lack of organizational ‘know how’ to organize and conduct strikes after a generation of little or no strike action. Reluctance of union leaders to confront or discomfort political allies. All the above (and more). Commentators on the historic decline of unions in our time would do better to honestly assess the condition, instead of seeking nostalgic identification with times past. Union labor needs a thorough restructuring and reorganization in the 21st century–like it did in the early 20th (industrial unions-CIO, IWW, NRU), before that in the late 19th (craft unions-AFL), and before that (Knights of Labor-self help associations). But the organizational future of labor lies in none of that, appropriate for a different time and place. So what’s holding it back?

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