Sign Of The Times: Labor Strikes May Make Comeback

Sign Of The Times: Labor Strikes May Make Comeback

When clerical workers at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach reached an impasse in talks with management over job security last week, they took what has become something of a rare step: They went on strike.

Once a mainstay of the labor arsenal, strikes have largely fallen off since the early 1980s. So a recent spate of high-profile work stoppages, including by Chicago teachers, nonunionized Wal-Mart workers and New York City fast-food employees, has some experts wondering if we’re seeing a resurgence of the tactic.

Thomas Kochan, co-director of the Sloan Institute for Work and Employment Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, thinks years of pent-up frustration over stagnant wages and diminishing benefits has finally hit the boiling point.

Labor Actions

Work stoppages have fallen off precipitously since the early 1980s, according to data from the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Number of work stoppages involving 1,000 or more employees, 1961-2011

Work stoppages involving 1,000 or more workers, 1961-2011

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Credit: Stephanie d’Otreppe/NPR

Number (in thousands) of workers involved in those stoppages.

Number of workers involved

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Credit: Stephanie d’Otreppe/NPR

“If you look at the national data, you see a decline in job satisfaction and you see tremendous frustration, particularly among younger workers who recognize they can’t get the kinds of jobs they’ve been educated for, that they can’t support their families or earn the kinds of incomes that their parents earned at comparable stages in life,” he says.

It’s been years in the making and long held in check by higher unemployment, but “you’re going to see more of those pressures explode in different ways because the economy is getting better, but people don’t necessarily feel it,” Kochan says.

Labor lawyer and author Thomas Geoghegan agrees things may have reached a tipping point. He credits the Occupy Wall Street movement with reminding labor “that getting out in the streets and making a loud noise is an option.”

“There are people who aren’t ready to strike now, but they are paying close attention to see if this sort of thing works,” he says. “If it does, you’re going to see more of it.”

Case in point: the Black Friday protests at Wal-Mart, which is known for its strong opposition to labor. Thousands of employees at stores across the country staged a one-day walkout on the busiest shopping day of the year over what they see as low pay, lack of benefits and heavy-handed corporate tactics to prevent them from organizing. The retailer tried to prevent the union-backed demonstrations but failed.

The Wal-Mart protests were an inspiration to many who manned the picket lines in Los Angeles and Long Beach, says Craig Merrilees, a spokesman for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, the union that represents the striking port workers.

This entry was published on December 9, 2012 at 7:16 pm. It’s filed under Politics and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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