American labor unions in recent years have made headlines by striking to demand better pay and working conditions. Teachers unions in at least seven states went on strike in 2018 and 2019. There are over half a million teachers union members, as teaching has one of the highest rates of union membership among professions. The largest of those strikes, which took place over six days in Arizona, resulted in 486,000 idle days for those on strike. In comparison, each of the 30 largest worker strikes in American history resulted at least 1 million idle days.
Unions were dealt a serious blow by the Supreme Court ruling in the case of Janus v. AFSCME. The court ruled in 2018 that public sector unions cannot require members to pay “agency fees,” which are similar to union dues. This means that non-union members can more easily reap the benefits of unions without paying into them. Many will likely choose not to pay, and experts predict certain unions, like those for firefighters and teachers, will lose money and political influence, even in states with strong pro-union laws.
Though union-ordered work stoppages occur at a fraction of the rate they once did, strikes remain a powerful bargaining tool for labor unions, and saw a noticeable uptick in the last year. There were 20 work stoppages of 1,000 or more workers in 2018, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2017, there were just seven major stoppages. Strikes were much more common in the 20th century. Before 1982, there were well over 100 major strikes per year dating back to 1947, the first year for which data is available. In 1952, there were a record 470 major strikes.
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 by the cumulative number of idle days (the number of workers involved multiplied by the duration of the strike), as is the Labor Department’s convention. Data for strikes that occurred between 1936 and 2018 was obtained from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Data for strikes that occurred before 1936 came from union websites, the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library archive, and other sources. The duration of a strike excludes weekend days and holidays.