Unionized Workplaces in the US Record Lowest Q1 Strikes in Four Years
Fri, December 9, 2022

Unionized Workplaces in the US Record Lowest Q1 Strikes in Four Years


Unionized workplaces in the United States recorded only 23 strikes in the first quarter of 2020. / Photo by KMH Photovideo via Shutterstock


Unionized workplaces in the United States recorded only 23 strikes in the first quarter of 2020, the lowest first-quarter strikes since 2016, according to online legal research platform Bloomberg Law.


First-quarter strikes in US unionized workplaces

Labor unions, which represent the collective interests of employees, have been slow to conduct the traditional workplace strikes in the first quarter amid the Covid-19 outbreak. It is believed that labor leadership has been busy this year because of the pandemic although most of its role revolved around promoting and supporting workplace protests that emerged as some employees were still required to go to their workplaces while others have been asked to stay at home.

Activists in the Walmart workforce, for instance, have been warning that workers can also die like Wando Evans. He was a former Walmart employee who died from Covid-19 complications and his relative filed a lawsuit against the retail giant, alleging that the latter did not do enough to protect its employees from the pandemic. Evans was 51 and had been reportedly working overnights in stock and maintenance at Walmart.

The national advocacy group United For Respect also mentioned that Walmart’s emergency sick-leave policy was late and inadequate as it was just introduced after the worker had already fallen ill. The group added that Walmart workers needed comprehensive health insurance, protective gear, better sanitization at work, and better paid-leave policies. This is why the other essential laborers in America have been staging protests; they sense danger.


Some protests not considered as strikes

Most of the protests done in the country were not considered as “strikes” by the union leaders. Included in these protests are the impromptu rally by sanitation workers in Pittsburgh. They were demanding better personal protective equipment and hazard pay. There was also the silent demonstration by General Electric factory workers, who demanded that the company start producing more ventilators. These factory workers also point out the safety conditions in their workplace.

Labor union IUE-CWA Local 86004 President Jake Aguanaga said via New York Daily News that if the company trusts them to test, maintain, and build engines that are used by various aircraft, why then wouldn’t GE trust them to produce the ventilators now that millions of lives are at stake.

The protest made by 19 painters of automobile company Fiat-Chrysler at its Sterling Heights Assembly plant was also not considered treated as a strike. The workers held a walkout after an employee had tested positive for Covid-19.


Most of the protests done in the country were not considered as “strikes” by the union leaders. / Photo by Zenza Flarini via Shutterstock


Nonunion walkouts

Just because there is less union activity in the country, though, doesn’t mean there have been no large-scale coordinated strikes happening. It is “quite the opposite,” analyzed Bloomberg Law. There are work stoppages that make it to the headlines almost every day in the country and most of these walkouts are planned by unorganized workers, which means they are employees working in nonunion companies. In a nonunion workplace, the employer holds most of the power, such as the determination of work expectation, work schedules, wages, and it maintains independence over workers' discipline, promotion, and other aspects of work culture. On the other hand, in a union workplace environment, employees are given control as their union can negotiate with the employer.

In March, there were strikes staged by workers of nonunion workplaces to complain about their unsafe conditions, such as in Amazon warehouses and pork processing company Perdue Farms poultry plants. A work stoppage has also been called by gig workers carrying groceries for retail company Instacart.

Nonunion cashiers and cooks at some McDonald’s and other restaurants in California have also expressed their safety and health concerns to their employers buy walking out of their jobs and into their cars to form picket lines, boundaries established by workers outside the place of work in an attempt to dissuade others from going in or to draw public attention.



Coronavirus-related strikes

One of the reasons pointed out in the Bloomberg analysis for why most of the coronavirus-related strikes happen outside the organized labor organization instead of within is that it is easier for the nonunion workers to walk out of their job as long as they are doing it with their coworkers. The United States’ National Labor Relations Act provides that such concerted activities are protected for both union and nonunion workers. Under the said protections, the nonunion-represented workers can band together without going through union leadership. On the other hand, most union employees are limited to their actions because of the “no-strike” clauses indicated in their collective bargaining agreements (CBA) with the employers or company they are working with. This only means that they are restricted to call for a strike while their CBA is still in effect.

A total of 12 work stoppages in the US were reported in March. Another reason why the number of strikes may have declined is that workers can no longer go on strike if they have been removed from the job or have been furloughed because of the pandemic.


Workers on strike

In 2018, the number of striking workers in the US reached nearly 500,000, an increase of about 25,000 compared to the 2017 data. This is according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. As the labor market tightens, which means there are more jobs than workers, employees have become more confident about demanding better benefits and salaries.

In 2019, there were 25 major work stoppages recorded in the US involving 1,000 or more workers and lasted at least one shift. These major work stoppages involved 425,500 workers. The educational services industry had a record 13 major work stoppages last year.  The largest work stoppage based on the number of lost workdays was the dispute between General Motors and the United Auto Workers comprising 46,000 workers.  

German trade union DGB’s student support body The Hans Boeckler foundation shows that the strike culture in the US is not particularly as strong as in France, whcih has 118 average annual number of strike days per 1,000 employees. It is followed by Denmark (116 average annual strike days), Belgium (88), Canada (74), Spain (57), Norway (55), Finland (37), Ireland (34), United Kingdom (21), Germany (16), United States (5), and Switzerland (1).

Strikes are an important expression of collective power in the workplace. It also balances the scale of labor power against the owners, who are also relying on workers for their services and production.