To the Chagrin of Sh*t-Kicking Activists, Number of Work Stoppages Declining Drastically in the U.S.
In the state of Illinois, multiple work stoppages made the news in 2012. From the Chicago Teachers Union to Caterpillar-employed machinists in Joliet, workers in the Land of Lincoln showed resolve in being fed up with concessionary demands. However, as Dave McKinney notes in the Chicago Sun-Times, it is more of a coincidence than an indication of pervasive labor unrest: work stoppages in Illinois have dropped significantly since the 1980’s.
Chicago area organized labor may have gained a reputation for being quick to strike, but the recent spike in journalist-friendly contract disputes does not represent an actual trend.
While there have been 15 work stoppages across the state this year, the six strikes or lockouts recorded in Illinois during all of last year represents a low-water mark in 28 years of record-keeping by the Federal Mediation & Conciliation Service, a federal agency that tracks strikes and lockouts.
The numbers are low compared to the 1980’s, but that doesn’t mean the intensity of the strikes has been necessarily diminished. Illinois workers have shown that labor remains willing to fight back when unfairness and managerial overreach (…and profit-hoarding) appear. According to president of the Illinois AFL-CIO, Michael Carrigan,
“I do think the labor movement is fired up and fighting back. We’ve had enough, we’re being asked to the negotiating tables and not receiving raises and being asked to give concessions. But you look around and see corporations enjoying record profits, and management [pay] increases are happening,” he said.
But are recent flareups the start of a re-volution? Or simply a starting point to get labor back to the point where it can halt concessions and make contractual progress? Bob Bruno of the University of Illinois at Chicago Labor Education Program told McKinney,
“From the outside, it might appear to be the dawn of a new workers proletariat revolution. But in fact, it’s much more the case where you have a series of disputes that have reached a certain point, and it’s more coincidental than it is some sort of common inspiration or vision that’s driving things and that you can link together.”
Moreover, as Josh Eidelson notes for Salon, the percentage of work stoppages that are lockout, not strikes, has doubled since the 1990s:
As workers lose ground to management, strikes are losing ground to lockouts. In the 1990s, just 4.1 percent of work stoppages were lockouts, according to Robert Combs of Bloomberg BNA; in the first quarter of this decade, 8.3 percent were. In the same period, the number of strikes has plummeted. In fact, as the New York Times reported in January, the ratio of lockouts to strikes hit an all-time high last year.
The Illinois trend follows the national norm. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of work stoppages involving 1,000 or more workers has plummeted. A look at ten-year periods shows the drastic rate at which work stoppages have declined over the past four decades. Starting in 1979, the BLS reports 235 work stoppages that involved 1,021,000 workers. In 1989 there were 51 work stoppages involving 452,000 workers. One decade later in 1999? 17 stoppages involving 73,000 workers. Finally, labor unrest grinded to a virtual halt in 2009 when 5 stoppages occurred involving just 13,000 workers.
Union members and activists are fed up with corporate overreach and rightfully so. But when viewed through the lens of work stoppages, organized labor’s one-time roar is beginning to sound more like a chirp.