Emboldened by a strike that began in West Virginia earlier this year, four more statewide teachers’ unions — in Oklahoma, Kentucky, Colorado, and Arizona — have now left work, demanding a fair paycheck.
While this might give proponents of organized labor hope, the reality is the unions of today face a bleak landscape. Membership rates have been steadily eroding for decades, making strikes — one of the most powerful ways for organized labor to fight for higher wages — considerably less effective. It will be later this year when the U.S. Supreme Court makes its decision in the case of Janus v. AFSCME, which centers on whether unions have the right to collect fees from non-union members to perform collective bargaining. The decision is widely expected to result in a major blow to public sector unions.
There were seven labor strikes of 1,000 workers or more last year, the second-fewest in U.S. history. The only time there were fewer strikes was in 2009, during the depths of the recession, when there were just five strikes.
The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers’ strike against Charter Communications, which at the time of this writing is ongoing, was by far the biggest strike launched last year — and it appears it will likely be the biggest this year as well. The strike, taking place in New York and New Jersey, has amounted to 345,600 cumulative idle days involving 1,800 workers. The IBEW strike against Charter accounted for nearly 80% of all the days workers were on strike in 2017.
By contrast, there were 470 major strikes in 1952, the most on record. Strikes that year resulted in 48.8 million days of idle worker time. Steel union strikes accounted for most of the strike activity that year and were immensely powerful at that time, when the United States was producing materials for its involvement in the Korean War.
In light of International Workers’ Day, 24/7 Wall St. identified the largest worker strikes ever held in the United States. The size of strikes is measured according to the Labor Department’s convention of cumulative number of idle days (the number of workers on involved multiplied by the duration of the strike). Data was obtained from internet sources such as labor history blogs as well as from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which archived annual analysis reports from 1936 through 1992 and has tracked this measure of strike size from 1993 through 2017. The duration of strikes exclude weekend days and holidays.