Oct 16, 2023 - Economy

More than 330K striking Americans help unions flex power

Approximate participants in U.S. union-related strikes
Data: Cornell Labor Action Tracker; Chart: Tory Lysik/Axios Visuals

More than 330,000 American workers — from Hollywood actors to medical technicians — have participated in strikes since the start of September, according to Cornell University's labor tracker.

Why it matters: Labor unions enjoying their highest approval ratings in generations are deploying hardball tactics in far-reaching sectors of the economy.

Zoom in: The United Auto Workers said last week that it could expand the strike against Detroit's Big Three automakers "at any time" — a shift in strategy for the union, which had been announcing new locations on Fridays.

  • UAW: Nearly 34,000 UAW members are participating in a strike against the Detroit Three automakers. The strike began on Sept. 15 with 13,000 workers.
  • SAG-AFTRA: The actor's guild, which represents 160,000 members, has been on strike since July. Actors and major studios suspended contract talks on Friday.

Two large-scale strikes, screenwriters and health care workers, ended in the past month.

  • Writers Guild of America: More than 11,500 striking TV and film writers became eligible to work last month after a 148-day-long walkout.
  • Kaiser Permanente: About 75,000 people who work for the nation's largest nonprofit health system went on strike for three days last week. It was the largest health worker strike in U.S. history. The unions and company said last week that they reached a tentative labor agreement.

By the numbers: The number of workers on strike has increased nearly 10-fold since 2021, according to the Cornell data.

  • Jan. 1 to Oct. 11, 2021: 188 strikes involving about 47,800 workers
  • Jan. 1 to Oct. 11, 2022: 345 strikes involving about 126,800 workers
  • Jan. 1 to Oct. 11, 2023: 318 strikes involving about 468,200 workers
Workers involved in major U.S. strikes
Data: BLS; Note: Includes lockouts. Based on year stoppage began. Workers are counted for each stoppage they are involved in per year; Chart: Tory Lysik/Axios

Flashback: Before the 1980s, more than a million workers regularly went on strike annually, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

  • In 1981, former President Reagan fired about 11,300 air traffic controllers nationwide for striking after he ordered 13,000 of them to return to work — drastically shifting the tone for labor movements.
  • Between 2000 and 2017, the average number of workers on strike shrunk to about 100,000 per year.

Go deeper: Why labor has something to celebrate this Labor Day

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