The number of workers on strike this year has already surpassed any year since the start of the pandemic, according to Bloomberg Law’s database of work stoppages.
A threatened United Auto Workers strike could make 2023 one of the most significant years for work stoppages in recent history. A targeted strike is expected if negotiations fail before their contract expires on September 14. The strike would expand over time if necessary, said UAW President Shawn Fain. If all 150,000 UAW workers walked out it would be the second-biggest work stoppage in over 25 years, topped only by the summer’s SAG-AFTRA actor’s strike.
But even if this is a big year for labor activity, this year’s surge in work stoppages still pales in comparison to decades past.
Here’s how the strikes that started this year compare with the past 30 years of labor activity.
From a 30-year view, the 1990s saw an impressive number of workers on strike — about twice as many as would strike in the next decade. But prior decades of walkouts far surpass those of the 1990s, when more than a million workers routinely went on strike each year.
The decline in strikes coincides with falling union membership. Forty years ago, 1 in 5 workers were in a union. In 2022, union membership hit a record low of 10 percent. Employers also became more willing to replace striking workers in the early 1980s, rather than negotiating with them.
Labor historian Lane Windham said she thinks that the strikes of summer 2023 are part of a broader reshuffling of relations between employers, workers and the government.
“We are likely to see more years of collective action among workers and strikes over the coming five to 10 years,” said Windham, a professor at Georgetown University and a former labor organizer. And the Hollywood strike could be particularly significant.
“A whole generation of young workers are seeing actors with picket signs,” Windham said. “And that is enormously influential.”
Data on individual work stoppages since 1990 is from Bloomberg Law. Lockouts, work stoppages initiated by employers, were excluded from the analysis. However, half of all work stoppages that occurred before 2009, which involved 12 percent of workers, were not categorized, so the above visualization may include lockouts. Lockouts are a very small share of work stoppages: For categorized data since 2009, lockouts made up only 4 percent of strikes involving 1 percent of workers.
Annual data on work stoppages from 1950-2023 comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which only tracks stoppages with at least 1,000 workers.