Oct 18, 2023 - News

How Oregonians flexed their union power this year

Illustration of three raised fists with upward pointing arrow cursors forming the negative space in each palm.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Hundreds of thousands of American workers — including Kaiser healthcare staff across Oregon and dancers from Portland's Magic Tavern — have participated in strikes this year, 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.

Driving the news: Since September, an additional 330,000 workers— from Hollywood actors to Detroit automakers — have gone on strike, making 2023 one of the biggest years for labor activity in the last four decades.

Zoom in: In Portland, labor activity picked up in May when baristas at the now-shuttered downtown Starbucks went on strike, followed by Providence nurses in June. Both unions called on management to address safety and staffing concerns.

However, "the summer of strikes" has not slowed as we roll into autumn.

  • A looming teachers strike threatens to close Portland-area schools starting next month if negotiations between the district and its largest union fail to make a breakthrough.
  • More than 1,000 PeaceHealth workers across two southwest Washington hospitals voted to authorize a strike this month if no agreement on what constitutes a "living wage" increase is made — hospital administrators warned Tuesday that striking workers could lose their health insurance.

By the numbers: The number of workers on strike has increased nearly tenfold since 2021, according to the Cornell data, and between Jan 1. And Oct. 11 this year there have been 318 strikes involving about 468,200 workers.

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

  • In 1981, then President Ronald 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.
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