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An increase in strikes in the down economy?

Striking workers' sign
Steve Rhodes/Flickr
Striking workers' sign

Michigan Radio has been covering stories from across the state regarding labor and contract disputes. From the strike of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra to the dispute between the City of Flint and its Firefighters Union, it seems that workers and management are having a difficult time finding common ground these days.

So, we wondered, do strikes increase during a down economy?  We assumed they did.  Well, as they say, that's we get for assuming.  As it turns out, the struggling economy may have actually reduced the number of labor disputes resulting in strikes. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were fewer work stoppages affecting 1,000 or more workers in 2009 than in any other year since 1947, when the collection of this data began.

To find out a little bit more, Michigan Radio's Morning Edition Christina Shockley spoke with John Beck.  He's a Professor of Labor at Michigan State University and Directs the university's Labor Education Program.

While 2009 set a record for the fewest number of large-scale strikes, Mr. Beck says the decline in labor strikes last year is actually part of a larger trend. “The amount of strikes has actually dropped precipitously here in the United States over the period of the last twenty to twenty-five years,” says Beck.

Although strikes may be less common now than they once were, Beck says their relative infrequency may actually cause their importance to be amplified when they do occur. Beck says, “They’re probably news worthier today just because there are so few of them by comparison.”   

When considering the causes for the decrease in worker strikes, Mr. Beck says it’s important to consider a variety of factors. For example, beginning in the 1980s, Beck says the legal framework for striking made it more and more risky for organized labor to stage strikes. He adds, “More and more employers used permanent replacements, in effect being able to legally get rid of a striking workforce.”

Now, with unemployment hovering near ten percent nationally, decent-paying jobs are a luxury that many workers aren’t willing to risk by striking, says Beck. “In a current economy like we have right now, workers want to hold onto the job that they have,” he says, “The last thing they want to do is be out on the street looking for different employment.” Instead of striking, the scarcity of jobs has made workers more likely to stay at their current jobs and attempt to use collective bargaining to improve their working conditions, pay, and benefits.  

With hopes rising for an economic recovery in 2011, Mr. Beck thinks an improved economic outlook will benefit workers in a few ways. “As the economy improves, it’s a lot easier for employers to kind of share the wealth,” says Beck, “On the side of organized labor, with an improving economy, often employers have a harder time keeping their most valuable employees, their highest skilled employees, which gives greater bargaining power then to a union that represents those workers.”

- By Eliot Johnson

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
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