Union Strikes in the US seem big but the numbers of Americans walking off their jobs remains historically low

This is brief commentary is pulled from several sources. It is meant to be an observation.

In “Union Booms and Busts,” a new book by the authors Judith Stepan-Norris, Jasmine Kerrissey, a review is taken of the shifting fortunes of U.S. labor, their unions, and of employers and their organizations. This is not meant to be a review of the book; but, I am giving credit to where I am taking the information besides other sites mentioned. It is interesting for me as someone who was consulting in manufacturing and understands the costs of manufacturing.

Some History

The number of U.S. workers who go on strike in a given year varies greatly but generally follows broader trends. After World War II ended through 1981, between 1 million and 4 million Americans went on strike annually. By 1990, the number plummeted. In some years, it fell below 100,000. By that point, workers were on the defensive for several reasons.

Turning Point in 1981

An event which became a turning point for unions was the showdown between President Ronald Reagan and the country’s air traffic controllers. The showdown culminated in 1981 with a strike by PATCO, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization union. Like many public sector workers, air traffic controllers did not have a legal right to strike. The union called one anyway because of safety concerns and other reasons.

Then President Ronald Reagan depicted the union as disloyal, ordering all of PATCO’s striking members back to work or be fired. The government turned to supervisors and military controllers as their temporary replacements and decertified the union. Later they were replaced by others over time. The nation was always short of air controllers.

Message to Companies

That episode sent a strong message to employers that permanently replacing striking workers in certain situations would be tolerated.

Many more court rulings and new laws favoring big business over labor rights came to be. These included the passage of a so-called right-to-work laws providing union representation to nonunion members in union workplaces. There was no requirement of the payment of union dues. Conservative states like South Dakota and Mississippi also have these laws on the books, along with states with more liberal voters such as Wisconsin.

As union membership plunged from 34.2% of the labor force in 1945 to around 10% in 2010). Workers became less likely to go on strike.

In 1991 NACTA Had the Same Concerns as PATCO

In 1991, National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NACTA) were expressing the same concerns which were stated in 1981 by PATCO.

NATCA president Tom Murphy noted that the union’s concerns were largely the same as those that lead PATCO to strike in 1981. Namely being salaries and stress levels (Lippert). Burns argued that NATCA was again fighting the same fundamental problems as PATCO a decade earlier: “under-staffing, overwork, antiquated equipment and sagging morale” (Burns). However, neither NACTA nor the FAA were willing to endure another strike after what had happened in 1981 (Burns). The 1981 PATCO Strike | UTA Libraries.

Pre 1981, wages kept up with productivity gains when unions were stronger than they were after Reagan busted PATCO. Wages increased 91.3% as productivity grew by 96.7% between 1948 and 1973. Due to Reagan’s actions, companies became stronger. State and court actions favored the companies over unions. Union membership declined. The rate of labor wages increase changed once union membership began to tumble. Wages stagnated from 1973 to 2013, rising only 9.2% even as productivity grew by 74.4%.

And Now?

As The Conversation authors Judith Stepan-Norris and Jasmine Kerrissey write, more than 323,000 workers  consisting of nurses, actors, screenwriters, hotel cleaners and restaurant servers were found walking off their jobs during the first eight months of 2023. Hundreds of thousands of the employees of delivery giant UPS would have gone on strike, too, had they not reached a last-minute agreement. And nearly 150,000 autoworkers may go on a strike of historic proportions in mid-September if the United Autoworkers Union and General Motors, Ford and Stellantis – the company that includes Chrysler – don’t agree on a new contract soon.

Drawn From

Waves of strikes rippling across the US seem big, but the total number of Americans walking off the job remains historically low,” theconversation.com, Judith Stepan-Norris and Jasmine Kerrissey.

Union Booms and Busts,” new book by authors Judith Stepan-Norris, Jasmine Kerrissey

The 1981 PATCO Strike,” UTA Libraries, Michael Barera

and links in the commentary.

Waves of strikes rippling across the US seem big, but the total number of Americans walking off the job remains historically low, theconversation.com, Jasmine Kerrissey and Judith Stepan-Norris.