The news yesterday that a deal may have been reached to end the three-month-old strike at the Momentive chemical plant in Waterford, N.Y., was notable for two reasons. One was that there was a possible settlement. The other was that there was a strike in the first place. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported on Thursday that the past decade has seen the fewest number of major work stoppages since the feds began tracking that activity after World War II.
“Over the past four decades (1977-1986 to 2007-2016) major work stoppages declined approximately 90 percent,” BLS reported in its regular report on strike activity. “The period from 2007 to 2016 was the lowest decade on record, averaging approximately 14 major work stoppages per year. The lowest annual number of major work stoppages was 5 in 2009.”
BLS defines a major work stoppage as includes both a worker-initiated strike or employer-initiated lockout that involves 1,000 workers or more and lass at least one shift.
Last year did see some workers walk out. The Verizon strike involved 36,500 workers who stayed out for what amounted to 1.2 million days (in other words, days that would have been worked by each striker). A nurses’ strike in Minnesota and the one-day Chicago teachers’ strike also propped up a historically low number of strikes. (Here’s a rundown of 2016 labor action and here‘s a list of big strikes since 1990.)
Labor peace certainly has its advantages. When my grandfather, dad and uncle all worked for the General Electric in Lynn, Mass., in the early 1960s, my dad’s memory is that there was unrest every three years when the contract was up. My father (for whom it was just a short-term gig, while Gampi and Uncle Jack both ended up working at the GE for more than 60 years between them) recalls one brawl in which cops and union members openly battled. Twelve years ago, I was on the strike committee when the United Auto Workers chapter at the Village Voice navigated a tense contract negotiation; it was exciting to prepare signs and a round-the-clock schedule in case my brethren and I decided to walk, but not so exciting to contemplate feeding my family on strike pay.
Throughout history, however, strikes have played a key role in securing rights for union members and a better way of life for all Americans. “Working people do not strike because they find pleasure in striking, or because they want vacations. To strike means sacrifice,” wrote the legendary labor leader Samuel Gompers in 1920. “Frequently it means acute suffering. Always it means a degree of hardship which has in it no element of pleasure. The strike is a protest. It is the one argument left to workers who can find no other avenue of relief, no other argument that will prevail in the overthrow of conditions which are unbearable.” The implication is that the vanishing of strikes means one of two things: Either things are quite bearable for workers or their tactic of last resort is no longer widely available.