Sunday, February 16, 2014

Are there really so few strikes?

Have labor strikes "nearly vanished from the American economic landscape?" That's the question asked by sociologist Jake Rosenfeld in his new book What Unions No Longer Do. As we note in The Date Game (p. 202) the question is difficult to answer because of Reagan-era budget cutbacks to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Since 1981 data on strikes are available only for labor stoppages involving more than 1,000 workers. Previously the Bureau spent funds gathering data on smaller strikes involving at least six workers for one eight-hour shift.

Rosenfeld notes the measured decline in large work stoppages from more than 200 per year in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s to fewer than 50 during the 1990s and 2000s (and only nine in 2009).  But perhaps this apparent decline is a result of the fewer number of large workplaces, especially manufacturing plants in the Midwest. Historically most strikes took place in smaller workplaces, so it could be the case that measuring only large workplaces exaggerates the decline in strikes.

Rosenfeld filed a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain data from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service where most unions must file before any stoppage. These data show that indeed all work stoppages were several times the number involving more than 1,000 workers, peaking at 1,000 stoppages in the early 1980s. However, since then the data for all work stoppages show a steep falloff until 2002, the most recent date investigated by Rosenfeld. As a result he concludes the "declines in work stoppages are not due to the particularities of large strikes."

See chapter 4, "Strikes" in What Unions No Longer Do Harvard University Press, 2014.

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