Updated Feb 22, 2023 - Economy

Major worker strikes increased nearly 50% last year as union popularity grew

Data: Bureau of Labor Statistics; Note: data includes lockouts; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: Bureau of Labor Statistics; Note: data includes lockouts; Chart: Axios Visuals

The number of major worker strikes in the U.S. rose to its second highest level in two decades in 2022, per a government report out Wednesday.

Why it matters: The strength of the labor market and the rise in popularity of unions drove up the numbers. COVID-era issues, like short-staffing, burnout and pay that didn't keep up with inflation, also pushed workers to the picket lines.

By the numbers: These aren't the blue-collar factory strikes of yore. There were 23 major work stoppages last year, involving a total of 120,600 workers, and 98% of the folks work in the service sector, specifically healthcare and education.

  • The biggest strike of 2022 was the 40-day walkout of 48,000 graduate students at the University of California, followed by 15,000 nurses who walked out in Minnesota.

Context: The Bureau of Labor Statistics, which published the report, only tracks work stoppages that involve more than 1,000 workers — and that leaves out a lot of strikes.

  • Per Cornell's ILR Labor Action Tracker, which examines the whole universe of work stoppages, 224,000 workers walked out in 2022 across 417 strikes and seven lockouts — an increase of more than 50% from 2021.
  • The smaller strikes involved more people in food services. 131 work stoppages involved Starbucks workers or fast-food workers organizing with the Fight for $15 campaign, Cornell reports.

Zoom out: Common demands from striking workers included higher pay, followed by health care, health and safety issues and staffing, according to Cornell's database.

  • The nurses in Minnesota reached an agreement that gives them an 18% wage increase over three years, and a say in staffing levels.
  • The University of California academics who went on strike won pay increases, including some as high as 55%, as well as better childcare and health benefits.

Yes, but: The numbers are small compared to strike activity in the last century.

  • More than 1 million workers went on strike in 1979. But after that, President Ronald Reagan took the White House and famously proceeded to deliver a major blow to the labor movement when he fired striking air traffic controllers in 1981.
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