Quiet on the Labor Front: 2010 Strikes and Lockouts Were Second Lowest on Record

Akito Yoshikane

On June 28, 2010, members of United Steelworkers Local 7-669 were locked out a Metropolis, Ill., plant by Honeywell, a major aerospace and manufacturing firm.

Work stoppages last year were the second lowest on record, the Department of Labor announced Tuesday.

Despite a few high-profile disputes, there were only 11 major strikes and lockouts involving more than 1,000 workers in 2010. That is slightly higher than 2009, when work stoppages hit a record low of five, the fewest since the department began tracking the labor conflicts in 1947. There were more idle workers for longer lengths of time than the previous year, with 45,000 workers losing 302,000 days. (In 2009, 13,000 workers were out of work for 124,000 days.)

The announcement comes just weeks after the Labor department said the total unionization rate in the United States declined from 12.3 to 11.9 percent last year. Much like how union membership has fallen, lockouts and strikes have been declining in recent decades. In the last ten years, there were only 17 work stoppages, compared to 269 from 1970-1981.

The labor landscape has changed dramatically since worker-management clashes peaked in 1952. Still, the low number of labor conflicts today doesn’t necessarily suggest that employees and managers are seeing unprecedented levels of harmonious relations. The growth of public-sector unions in recent years plays a role in fewer work stoppages since many government workers are legally prohibited to strike.

What else could account for the decline? Political paradigms have also shifted, challenging unions’ ability to organize, especially in former membership strongholds like the manufacturing sector. According to a July 2010 paper in the Journal of American Sociology, the failure to protect workers from globalization hit manufacturing unions especially hard, and weak labor legislation has made it easier for employers to capitalize on its labor force.

The union resistance by firms and unfavorable legislative climate has reduced some unions’ propensity to strike. The authors of the Journal paper write:

Moreover, the state’s shift toward neoliberal policies has made the original CIO [Congress of Industrial Organizations] unions particularly vulnerable both in terms of enforcement of labor law and protection from the globalization of trade, which has eroded their manufacturing base. As such, the decision to strike by the original CIO unions should be negatively affected both by the decline of the manufacturing sector and the growth of foreign direct investment.

But the grim statistics might overlook a brewing propensity to strike in service-oriented labor groups. Unlike the more traditionally industry-based unions, other groups have adopted a more aggressive stance.

The authors say unions like the SEIU, Change to Win, UFCW and UNITE-HERE are relying on social movement strategies and coalition building to grow union membership. They found that the unions are prone to strike in cases when firm’s resist. They write:

Given their reputation for militancy…, we expect that threats, especially from firms, will increase strike activity among these social movement unions. And while these unions have focused on organizing, they have also been politically active and have often relied on political allies during the course of strikes and organizing drives… Thus, the social movement unions may be less prone to strike when political allies are few and far between.

As Joe Burns, a strong advocate for strikes, argued on Working In These Times last year, simply amassing more union members falls short of effective labor organizing.

To win strikes, trade unionists must recreate an effective strike which draws heavily upon traditional trade union theory and practice,” Burns wrote. In doing so, the labor movement will have to directly confront the system of labor control — a system of laws and court rulings specifically constructed to outlaw effective union tactics.”

Some unions have renewed a commitment to strikes last year. More than 300 Mott’s workers represented by the RWDSU went on strike after their parent company tried to implement concessions despite record profits, although the success of their campaign has been debated. While strikes like the Mott’s conflict won’t make the yearly strike statistics, the smaller scale work stoppages in service industries shows a greater willingness to push back.

Labor groups have recently gained visibility for their power to mobilize in the United States and abroad. Fresh off the conclusion of the Super Bowl, the threat of an NFL lockout next season has heightened the spotlight on work stoppages and the player’s union. Across the globe, trade unions in Egypt and Tunisia have been integral in forming coalitions against their autocratic leaders. Will the latter’s emerging success through strikes provide inspiration for labor groups in the United States?

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Akito Yoshikane is a freelance writer based in Chicago.
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