Over 500,000 workers went on strike in 2023 — double from last year

Over 500,000 workers went on strike in 2023 — double from last year

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Over twice as many workers hit the picket line last year as they did in 2022 — and you can thank actors, writers, and UAW members for the massive increase. 

A new annual report from the Labor Action Tracker, compiled by the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University and the Labor and Employment Relations School at the University of Illinois, tracked work stoppages across the country. 

The report finds that, in 2023, there were 470 work stoppages — 466 of which were strikes.

In total, around 539,000 workers were involved in work stoppages last year. That’s up from around 224,000 in 2022. The report attributes that uptick to the sweeping, headline-making strikes by workers in Hollywood, the auto industry , the Kaiser Permanente healthcare system, and Los Angeles schools

“That did reflect some major contracts coming up for renewal, and leadership of those unions being willing to push harder in negotiations,” Alex Colvin, dean of the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell, told BI. He added: “It is a lesson that those big contracts matter a lot. We certainly saw the impact directly with SAG and the Writer’s Guild with over a hundred day long strikes that really affected the entertainment industry; they have an outsized impact.” 

The strike activity comes even as the US’s union membership rate hit a record low 10% in 2023, per the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which comes after decades of decline

Even so, workers in unions — and some who aren’t — were willing to walk out. Colvin chalks that up to a combination of factors: “We certainly have a tight, strong labor market, and when you have a strong labor market, you tend to see more strike activity,” he said. At the same time, there’s more activism in the labor movement itself, along with shifting positive sentiment among the public. And that’s all connected to a shift in union leadership, Colvin said, with more “innovative, active” leaders like Shawn Fain taking the reins.

The top demands of work stoppages were the same as the previous year, per the report: Pay, health and safety, and staffing topped the list. And while most work stoppages involved workers in unions, around a fifth were actually helmed by nonunion workers — meaning they had less protection than their unionized counterparts. 

It’s an “interesting development,” according to Colvin. A common misperception around strike activity, he said, is that union leaders are pushing workers to go on strike when they don’t want to.

“We tend to find that’s not actually the case,” Colvin said. “What is more often going on is that workers get fed up and want to express their concerns, and they’re often the ones pushing for labor action.” 

Another notable development: Short work stoppages in the form of one-day strikes, which began to rise in 2022 and stayed high in 2023. Similarly, the number of two to four day long strikes also rose in 2023. Indeed, Uber and Lyft drivers staged a one-day protest across 20 cities on Valentine’s Day in protest of declining pay, among other issues.

“Unions are more willing to use the strike weapon after it being pretty quiet for quite a while,” Colvin said. “So the return of strikes seems to be something that really is more here to stay.”

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