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The Labor Law Insider: The Pandemic Economy - Do Recent Strikes Portend the Resurgence of Unions?

 
Podcast

In 2021, workers employed by well-recognized companies located in the U.S., including John Deere, Kellogg’s and Nabisco, went on strike. Tens of thousands of other workers threatened strike activity in Hollywood and in the healthcare industry. The press had dubbed this “Striketober,” with issues ranging from wages to claims of unsafe working conditions and unfair terms and conditions of employment. According to the New York School of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR) at Cornell University, between January 2021 and January 18, 2022, workers launched strikes at 396 locations across the U.S. with 370 strikes occurring in 2021.

The National Labor Relations Act provides nearly all private-sector employees, whether unionized or not, with the right to participate in a strike, picket or protest against an employer, subject to certain limitations and qualifications. Unions and some analysts contend that pandemic-induced labor shortages, supply-chain disruptions, and a massive exodus of workers from the labor market have culminated in a union resurgence. They predict that the strike activity of 2021 will ignite an increased level of worker willingness to strike for better terms and conditions of employment. Is the recent wave of strikes combined with a pandemic-induced labor shortage and worker activism a harbinger of union resurgence?

The data and our labor law attorneys suggest that a union resurgence in most industries is at best uncertain and perhaps unlikely. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) records the number of annual work stoppages involving 1,000 or more workers lasting one full shift or longer. Work stoppages as defined by the BLS are comprised of strikes and lockouts. The 2021 data reported by the BLS lists 12 work stoppages with one ongoing, and in 2020, the BLS reported a total of eight work stoppages. As a reference point, the years with the highest number of work stoppages recorded by the BLS were 1952 and 1974, with 470 and 424 work stoppages, respectively, or more than 35 times more likely to have occurred about 50 years ago. The data suggest that, although there may have been 370 strikes in 2021, the sheer number of workers impacted by the 2021 strikes was small and does not nearly approximate the number of workers impacted in years with comparable numbers of work stoppages as determined by the BLS. In addition, on January 20, 2022, the BLS also released a union members summary indicating that union membership declined in 2021 to 10.3%, a 0.5% decrease from 2020, and the same unionization rate as recorded in 2019. Private-sector union membership, where strikes are most likely, has also declined and is at an all-time low of 6.1%.

What conclusions can be drawn about the significance of recent strike activity and the highly touted Striketober? How does the continued low level of union membership affect the likelihood of union resurgence? Should employers expect to experience significantly increased union membership drives and associated strikes? Which industry is more vulnerable to union organizational efforts?

To hear the answer to these and other timely questions, listen to our labor law group discussion about whether the recent labor protests and strikes signal an increase in the risk of labor disruption for employers.

    

View Transcript.

Contact us

If you have questions regarding union organizing issues and your workplace, contact Tom GodarTerry PotterRufino Gaytán, Adam Doerr or your Husch Blackwell attorney.

Professionals:

Thomas P. Godar

Of Counsel

Terry L. Potter

Senior Counsel

Rufino Gaytán III

Senior Counsel

Adam C. Doerr

Senior Associate

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