The most common demands of the 140,000 striking American workers in 2021 involved health and safety protocols, pay and health care benefits, according to the Cornell ILR Labor Action Tracker 2021 annual report.
Published Feb. 22, the report captures nuances of a surge in labor activism considered by many, at least in part, to be an outgrowth of the pandemic’s amplification of many worker issues. The tracker launched in 2021 to serve as an accurate benchmark for worker actions, most of which are not documented by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which reports only stoppages of 1,000 or more workers that last at least an entire shift.
Although the scope of activity workers are organizing around seems to be expanding in response to racial injustice, sexual harassment and other issues, fewer workers went on strike last year than in 2018 or 2019, and last year’s strike numbers do not approach those of the mid-late 20th century, said project lead John Kallas, Ph.D. ’23.
“This speaks to the obstacles and challenges facing workers who decide to strike,” he said. “Strikes and union organizing can often be contagious, though, and whether this translates into more sustainable gains for the labor movement remains a question.”
The 265 work stoppages – 260 were worker-initiated strikes and five were employer-initiated lockouts – involved about 140,000 workers who were on strike for a combined 3.2 million days, according to the report, which noted that 62,000 of the workers were part of one-day sympathy strikes.
There were as many strikes in the South as the Northeast and West, which is surprising considering the deep legacy of anti-unionism in the South, said Kallas, who was advised on the project by Eli Friedman, associate professor of international and comparative labor in the ILR School, and assisted on report research by Leonardo Grageda, M.I.L.R. ’22.
A noticeable uptick in strikes and workers on strike occurred in October and November.
“Many commentators discussed the role of a tight labor market, though labor market conditions do not inevitably lead to strikes. Strikes require deep organizing and, often, support from labor organizations,” Kallas said. “Labor market conditions may have provided workers with more leverage, but our data demonstrate that many workers decided to strike in response to issues such as COVID-19 health and safety concerns, understaffing and stagnant wages.”
It’s also important to note that more than 100,000 workers threatened to strike in October and November before reaching contract agreements, Kallas said. “This speaks to the importance of strike threats, which we do not include in our data, as an important bargaining tool for workers.”
Mary Catt is director of communications at the ILR School.