Labor strikes, such as The Screen Actors’ Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) strike, have permeated the news. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics found that 80,700 workers were involved in major strike activity in 2021, and that number increased to 120,600 in 2022. 2023 has already seen more workers on strike than the previous two years, given the nearly 160,000 members of SAG-AFTRA are on strike.
The Cornell ILR School Labor Action Tracker estimates there are 890 labor actions found in 1366 locations. This explainer will explore the recent increase in strike activity.
The Right to Strike
Labor strikes surged in the United States in the late 19th century because of the Industrial Revolution. Workers involved in the surge of mass labor, especially in factories and mines, organized work stoppages to protest unsafe and unfair working conditions. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) was passed in 1935 to address the emerging labor challenges. The statutory purpose states: “It is the purpose and policy of this chapter, in order to promote the full flow of commerce, to prescribe the legitimate rights of both employees and employers in their relations affecting commerce, to provide orderly and peaceful procedures for preventing the interference by either with the legitimate rights of the other, to protect the rights of individual employees in their relations with labor organizations whose activities affect commerce, to define and proscribe practices on the part of labor and management which affect commerce and are inimical to the general welfare, and to protect the rights of the public in connection with labor disputes affecting commerce.”
The NLRA protects the right “to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.” Strikes are included among the concerted activities protected by the NLRA. The right to strike, however, is not unlimited. The lawfulness of a strike depends upon many factors, including the strike’s purpose, its timing, and the conduct of the striking workers. Lawful strikes include strikes for economic purposes and strikes in protest of unfair labor practices. Unlawful strikes include strikes violating a no-strike provision of a contract, strikes in which striking employees engage in misconduct that is violent or threatening, and strikes to terminate or change a contract.
Causes of Strikes
Strikes come about due to a variety of circumstances within a workplace. For example, several Starbucks stores across the US have recently gone on strike because of unfair labor practices. Such practices are defined by the NLRA as those thatare committed by employers when the employer violates employees’ protected rights, such as the right to organize, form, join or assist a labor organization, or discriminating against employees because of labor organization. Additionally, many labor organizations across the US are striking for fair pay, including the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Wabtec, SAG-AFTRA, and Gannett. A main reason for striking among foodservice workers currently on strike is health and safety issues in the workplace. These include working in extreme heat, being forced to work while sick and injured, and working in unsanitary conditions, among others. McDonald’s workers across the US are striking for better health and safety conditions in the workplace after employers forced them to work through illness and injury to the point where one worker died after being forced to work at a McDonald’s while sick in Los Angeles. Other McDonald’s workers in Houston went on strike after the air conditioning broke during their shift. Experts are also contributing the surge in strike activity to inflation and economic changes that resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic. Income inequality –– with 69% of total wealth in the US belonging to the top ten percent during the first quarter of 2023 –– is another contributing factor to strikes. The Cornell ILR School Labor Action Tracker also cites these reasons for ongoing strike action in the US: health care, racial justice, staffing, job security, retirement benefits, union recognition, union activity, and scheduling
A recent Gallup poll showed that approval of labor unions is at its highest since 1965, with 71% of Americans in support of them. Despite the support for labor unions, the share of workers represented by a union is declining. Thus, the future of strikes, and the workplace, remain to be unknown.