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labor Have We Learned Anything Since Striketober?

What do we know about how strikes are measured and why workers strike?

This month marks the one-year anniversary of “Striketober.” Last fall, many expressed hopes that the labor movement was experiencing a Phoenix-like resurgence in the form of a strike wave. New data and measures of strike activity reported “dramatic” increases that garnered significant media attention. Gathered by the likes of Payday Report and Cornell’s School of Industrial Relations, these new data and measures were partly meant to question official, government measures of strike activity collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which stopped collecting more comprehensive data in the early 1980s.

However, subsequent commentary threw buckets of cold water on this pyre of hope. Although work stoppages did increase significantly in October and November of last year, no one disputed the claim that the upsurge was quite modest in comparison to the public sector education strikes that had occurred in 2018, which had involved 7 times as many workers. After the dust settled, the Bureau of Labor Statics reported in February of 2022 on the number of “major work stoppages” in 2021. According to the BLS, “A major work stoppage involves 1,000 or more workers and lasts at least one shift during the work week, Monday through Friday excluding Federal holidays.” By that measure, there were 16 major work stoppages in 2021, compared to an average of 17 major work stoppages each year between 2000-2021. When placed in a larger historical context, Striketober fares even worse. The number of major work stoppages in 2021 barely budges the “strike-o-meter” compared with the number of work stoppages several decades ago. The waves of either 2018-2019 or 2021 look paltry indeed when compared to the number of workers who struck in the 1940s following World War II of even in the 1970s, after which the number of major work stoppages began to fall dramatically. Even Cornell ILR’s report conceded that the level of strike activity in October and November of 2021 was lower than earlier historical eras: “The number of work stoppages and approximate number of workers involved in work stoppage is considerably less than the most recent comprehensive BLS data from the 1970s, and the approximate number of workers involved in work stoppages falls behind recent increases documented by the BLS in 2018 and 2019.”

As this recapitulation suggests, much of the discussion about Striketober, optimistic or pessimistic, has focused on the quantitative data. But quantitative evidence, like all “facts,” requires interpretation. And given how much strikes and the labor movement matter, it’s important to get these issues right. This post aims to take a step back and take a broader view of both (1) the different measures and, more especially, (2) the reasons and causes for why, where, and when workers strike. These reflections may not enable us to predict where the labor movement is going, but my conclusion, based on my reading of the nature and causes of strikes, is that the future of the labor movement is much more “open” than recent judgments would dictate. To place a slightly different emphasis on a famous quote, circumstances transmitted from the past do influence workers—but workers, after all, do make their own history.

To the extent that explanations have been offered for the more recent upturn in work stoppages—or the downtown in strike activity in a longer, historical perspective—they have emphasized “economic” factors and causes. Currently popular among some Marxist thinkers is the notion of a “falling rate of profit.” This theory says that capitalism will result in ever lower rates of return to capital investment, which in turn will provoke a long, “secular” decline in growth, productivity, and jobs. Some commentators have linked the falling-rate of profit not only to economic stagnation, but also claim it explains the long downturn in workers’ strike activity.

At first, this explanation for the long downturn in work stoppages looks like a straightforward application of a basic Marxian insight. However, placed in the context of other explanations of strike activity, this theory is closer to academic, “bourgeois” economics than anything subscribed to by Marx or his followers. Indeed, from different and more traditional Marxist perspectives, economic decline and stagnation should lead to more strikes, not less.

Measuring Strikes

Let’s start by taking a look at the ways strikes are measured. There is no obvious way to do this. For instance, why only record, as the BLS does, work stoppages that involve over 1000 workers? There are good-faith reasons both for and against this seemingly arbitrary cut-off. On the one hand, a number this high will typically recognize strikes in large workplaces or companies, employing at least 1000 workers. That might have been appropriate for an era of large-scale factory work, but seems less appropriate in our remote, work-from-home age. (That said, the death of the large employer may be greatly exaggerated. Other BLS data indicates that the share of private sector employment working for firms of 1000 employees or more has been consistently growing since at least 1993.) On the other hand, not every work stoppage—literally just a stoppage of work—represents strike activity in the sense of worker concerted activity for mutual aid and protection. One may not agree with the 1000-number cut-off, but perhaps some line needs to be drawn in order to identify which work stoppages really have significance.

The inclination to record only strikes that involve a certain number workers recognizes that the size of strikes—how many workers involved—is just as important as their frequency—the number of work stoppages in a given period. By why stop there? Another important way to gauge the significance of its strike might also be its duration—how many person-days of work are lost to the strike. In fact, some researchers use a measure of strike volume that includes all three dimensions of a work stoppage. In his magisterial study of Italian strikes in the postwar period, Roberto Franzosi, a sociologist at Emory University, found that the volume—the shape—of strikes changed significantly over the three decades following World War II. In the 1950s and 1960s, strike activity was fairly homogenous, with a couple of years in the 1960s featuring strikes of quite long duration—tests of economic power between employers and workers, perhaps. Starting around 1970s, including the famous “hot autumn” of 1969, strike size (the number of workers) increased noticeably and dramatically, while strike duration shortened. The evolution of the shape of strikes raises an important question in its own right—what accounts for the change?—and also casts doubt on whether there is a uniquely ideal way to measure strikes.

All of this, especially the example of changing strike shapes or volumes in Italy over time, suggests an important lesson. There is not one “best” measure of strike activity. Rather, which strike measure we use may depend on what we want to learn from the data. This will become more apparent as we turn now to a discussion of the explanation of strikes: why, when, and where do workers strike?

Why Do Workers Strike?

One longstanding explanation of strikes is called the business-cycle theory of strikes. This explanation has some justification in the historical data, which shows that the frequency of strikes moves in tandem with periods of boom and bust. When the business cycle is in an expansionary phase, and demand is high for both labor and a firm’s products or services, workers are in a stronger bargaining position. When labor markets are tight, the employer’s threat of termination is muted and bargaining leverage shifts toward workers, thus making strikes more likely, according to this theory. This is especially true when the demand for an employer’s product or service is high, because the employer is reluctant to interrupt their operation and lose customers or business to others. However, all of this reverses when the business cycle decelerates. In a downswing, the demand for labor and a firm’s output weakens, inventories pile up, the number of job applications soars, and the employer’s bargaining power increases. The imperative to maintain profits makes employers especially willing to confront workers, to demand more work or a freeze in wages, even if such action provokes a strike. Any hint of worker protest can be met with the employer pointing to the queue of unemployed job-seekers growing outside the company’s front door.

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This explanation of strike behavior has been used by some Marxists to explain the long downturn in strike activity that begins in the 1970s and accelerates in the 1980s. This period of growing worker quiescence coincides with a secular and falling trend in the rate of profit. As many observers have recognized, even business upswings in the 1980s and 1990s featured “jobless recoveries.” Demand for labor had remained weak throughout the period of neoliberal resurgence, and this has dramatically weakened workers’ power and bargaining position. Thus, according to these Marxist observers, a long-term fall in the rate of profit explains the withering of the strike. Moreover, because some of these same observers appear to believe there is little possibility for the restoration of profits, opportunities for the labor movement are unlikely to improve. Striketober was merely a one-off reprieve workers enjoyed as a result of an economy juiced-up “exogenously” by temporary government pandemic-relief aid.

There is some empirical support to the business-cycle theory of strikes, but it is certainly not the whole story, as Franzosi makes clear in his study of Italian strikes. The business-cycle theory also runs into other obstacles. In most developed countries in the 1970s, unemployment increased substantially. But strikes also went up when, in the face of unemployment, the business-cycle model says they should go down. For example, in an article published in Comparative Politics, Craig Humphries found evidence for a strong, positive relationship between the average percent of unemployed in several developed countries between the 1960s and 1980s, on the one hand, and average strike volume over the same period, on the other. See Humphries’ Figure 1 included below.

Humphries’s evidence flies directly in the face of the business-cycle theory, which predicts that strike activity will go down as unemployment goes up. Humphries offers several reasons to explain these findings. “First, structural unemployment may reduce the threat of replacement.” That is, if unemployment is relatively long-term, permanent, or “secular,” workers may not see it as a contingent and variable circumstance on which to strategize about their strike activities. “Second,” Humphries continues, “retaliation for planned layoffs is more likely if there is little chance of gaining another job.” In other words, strikes might be a rational response to high unemployment if workers feel they are next on the chopping block anyway. He offers as an example the miners’ strike in Britain, which was taken in response to the Thatcher government’s planned privatization of the country’s coal mines and the inevitable layoffs that were to follow. Other studies support these findings, but show more precisely that the business-cycle theory holds only for earlier periods and begins to break down over time, especially after the 1960s, when strikes remained high in several different countries despite high unemployment. Some research shows that the business-cycle model really only works in the United States.

It should be added that the business-cycle model of strikes is notMarxist in origin. In fact, it was developed by mainstream, academic economists. Its assumptions are consistent with those thinkers’ vision of the social world. Those assumptions are that people will act rationally or optimally, at least cost to themselves, given the opportunities and choices they are presented with. Hence, business-cycle theories predict that workers will take strike action during times of prosperity rather than hardship. But this is hardly the only way to think about strikes. More sociologically-considered opinions have posited that strikes are a function of economic hardship or deprivation. People act when they “can’t take it anymore,” when hardship or grievances become intolerable. Strikes will occur when workers’ backs are up against the wall. From this perspective, an economic-hardship theory of strikes predicts that workers will strike, not when times are prosperous as the business-cycle model suggests but, quite the opposite, when times are tough. Moreover, this perspective recognizes that strikes have expressive and not just instrumental value: strikes are often as much expressions—of power, discontent, or anger—as they are instruments of collective-bargaining struggle. The hardship explanation of strikes also goes against the pessimistic assessments of some interpreters of Marx and his falling rate of profit. Indeed, the more traditional view promoted by Marxists, precisely in line with an economic hardship theory of strikes and protests, is that a falling rate of profit would inevitably produce a workers’ revolution. In that view, Striketober marks the timely result of capitalism’s nadir, the realization by workers that a regime of production-for-profit does not work for them, and the stirrings of a new labor movement.

But the business-cycle and economic-hardship explanations of strikes don’t end the story. Another influential story about strikes can be called the “organizational” model of strikes. Pulling off a coordinated work stoppage requires some amount of organization, or self-organization, among the workers. Either prosperity or deprivation might provide the fuel for strikes, but they seem more like necessary, rather than sufficient, conditions. Strikes are collective actions, and their initiation, let alone success, requires organized or institutional coordination among workers. Organization helps build the size of the strike, by allowing coordination among more workers, perhaps in different locations. Organization can also help lengthen the strike’s duration. When union members pay dues, this money can be placed into a strike fund, which increases the power of the strike by allowing workers to hold out for a longer period of time.

But the organization model presents some paradoxes. For instance, if the organizational model was the whole story, we should expect to see places with denser labor organization to have more strikes than those with less. For instance, we would expect Sweden—with industry-encompassing, large-scale unions and the vast majority (70%) of workers members of labor unions—to have far more strikes than the United States—which has featured fragmented, divisive unions that have only ever admitted at most under forty-percent of workers as union members (now around 9%). This expectation is mistaken, however, because, at least prior to the steep decline of work stoppages in the US in the 1980s, strike frequency and volume in the United States far exceeded that of Sweden.

For the organizational model, the higher frequency of strikes in the US than in Sweden is a paradox. What explains it? It turns out that organizing workers may have contradictory effects for strike activity. Organization may not only increase the frequency of strikes, as just discussed, but decrease it as well. There are a couple of ways this might happen. First, organization is often, if not necessarily, accompanied by processes of institutionalization: legalization, formalization, proceduralization, and bureaucratization. For example, an explicit goal of the National Labor Relations Act, the statute that regulates labor relations and collective bargaining in the United States, is to channel disputes away from “industrial strife” and into more “peaceful” forms of legal procedures (such as the handling of complaints or “unfair labor practices” before the National Labor Relations Board) and to encourage negotiation and dialog between employers and unions, so that disputes can be resolved short of strikes. This may be a good or bad thing, depending on one’s perspective. We are mainly concerned right now with the effects of institutionalization on strike activity (although I have argued elsewhere that legal rights tend to obstruct and weaken the labor movements’ ability to build its own autonomous forms of power.)

Another way organization may reduce the frequency of strikes is through the building up of the union’s power. Now we are talking about a different kind of organization, such as increased solidarity and coordination—the kind of organization that gives workers power to stop production. If organization increases the union’s power, the union’s strike threat becomes more credible—so credible that the employer may not want to second guess the threat. In other words, if workers’ power reaches such a scale, workers may not need to always demonstrate that power to the employer with a strike—the threat of a strike may be enough to wring concessions from an employer. Certainly, the underlying antagonism between workers and employers does not go away. Equally certain is that a union’s power will still need to be demonstrated on occasion through actual strike activity. But there is still a paradox of power. Employers will be more willing to test the power of a union’s whose power is uncertain. They will be less willing to test the power of a really strong union. In any case, through either channel—institutionalization or the ability to signal power—organization may actually reduce the propensity to strike. Which mechanism explains the frequency of strikes in a place like Sweden is hard to say. Probably, it’s some of both.

The extent of organization is directly pertinent to the significance of Striketober. One feature picked up on by the Cornell ILR school’s strike tracker, and missed in the official, BLS statistics, is the number of work stoppages at officially nonunion workplaces. The ILR’s annual report of 2021 “documented 87 strikes by nonunion workers, accounting for a somewhat unexpected 32.8% of the total number of work stoppages.” Nearly of third of last year’s strike wave were undertaken by unorganized workers. On the one hand, this reflects the organizational model’s expectation that organized workers are more likely to strike than unorganized workers. It also supports that view that organization increases the size of strikes: the ILR report finds that “these strikes tend to be far smaller than work stoppages involving unionized employees.” On the other hand, that nearly a third of strikes were undertaken by unorganized workers is surprisingly high from the organization model’s view—“unexpected” as the ILR report acknowledges. This may reflect the intuition that strikes may be the only avenue for unorganized workers to express their grievances. In the absence of organization, there is no dialog, no way to formally express grievances, no way to reliably gauge the threat of a work stoppage.

Finally, in addition to economic and organizational models of strikes, there are political models of strikes. This model incorporates a number of different observations. One is that governments are never innocent bystanders when it comes to labor relations. Those familiar with the history of US federal courts’ proclivity to enjoin strikes—“government by injunction”—will appreciate this point. Because the state is never a passive observer in labor struggles, workers and unions are likewise hardly unaware of the state, its monopoly of violence, and the legal implications for their concerted activities. There are therefore no reasons, as the economists’ business-cycle model assumes, that strikes will be purely “economic” in purpose or orientation. Rather, strikes are also frequently directed at the state or other political actors. Strikes may express grievances toward both employers and the government. Economic grievances may become political if workers believe government economic policy is ineffective, or if increasing government-involvement heightens the state’s responsibility (whether perceived or real) for economic outcomes. Political strikes may reflect growing realization by workers that the supposedly distinct spheres of economics and politics are not that distinct after all. For the same reason, politically-oriented strikes, even if their objectives may still be directly or indirectly “economic,” do not necessarily follow the logic of the business cycle. Finally, strike activity may depend on the nature of collective bargaining institutions and their articulation with the state. For example, highly coordinated, national-level bargaining substantially increases the political stakes of the parties’ activities—and concentrates the gaze of public officials. Also, when the working class, through its political representatives, gains a durable voice in government, bargaining may “migrate” from the economic plane to the political one. In this scenario, strikes may decline because workers can achieve in government what they once struggled for at the bargaining table—or because unions or workers face pressure not to strike in order to avoid embarrassing the incumbent, “workers” government.

In his study of the strike in Italy, Franzosi finds lots of evidence for the political story of strikes. For example, in the 1950s to the mid-1960s he finds fewer strikes than even a pure economic-bargaining model would predict. Why? State repression. In the immediate postwar decades, the general political climate was unfavorable to the working class, and this found expression in a more repressive labor regime. Political factors are also hugely important for explaining why strikes went up along with unemployment, in contradiction to the business-cycle model, in the 1970s. By the 1970s, dramatic changes had occurred in the labor market and in politics. Unions had achieved an unprecedented degree of control over the labor market and workers enjoyed stronger employment guarantees. The Italian Communist Party (Partito Communista Italiano, PCI) was, for the first time, involved in government responsibilities. And collective bargaining had shifted to a centralized, confederal level. These changes had different effects on strike activity. On the one hand, the scala mobile agreement between the largest employers and employees provided for automatic adjustments of wages to offset increases in the cost of living. This brought down the frequency and duration of strikes. But the increasing political character of collective bargaining and labor relations increased the size of strikes, the number of strikers. These political factors account for the persistence of strike volume into the 1970s, despite higher unemployment.

Conclusion

For some commentators, the strike wave of October and November represents no more than a blip in the long downturn of strike activity and another indication, alongside shrinking union density, of the labor movement’s ultimate demise. This interpretation is underwritten, in a total reversal of traditional Marxist thought, by a long-term fall in the rate of profit. Conjoined with the economists’ business-cycle theory of strikes, none of these trends portend well. According to this line of thinking, profit rates will remain low, which means that workers will face persistent or increasing hardship and unions will remain weak. These are reasons to expect strikes to remain infrequent. But if we collect all of the stories of strikes that we have considered, another interpretation is entitled to draw entirely different conclusions. Consider three insights from the different explanations of strikes gathered above. First, lack of organization may mean that only weaker unions go on strike, while very strong unions do not because strong unions do not need to demonstrate their power. Second, strikes may be motivated not just by favorable economic “opportunities,” but also by persistent economic hardship. Strikes also have expressive value. Third, evidence from comparison across countries suggests that greater degree of organization and institutionalization of unions and collective bargaining serves to “domesticate” labor movements rather than make them more combative. Together, these paint a very different story than the marxisant falling-rate-of-profit interpretation. The labor movement in the United States has experienced a profound degree of decline and disorganization over the last three decades, perhaps as a result of falling rates of profit undermining accepted patterns of behaviors and institutions. But workers today appear to be on the brink, many of them not returning to their pre-pandemic jobs, occupations, and industries because they are tired of the miserable working conditions they have had to endure. Decline in the organization and density of union membership may undo the processes of domestication that previously restrained or mollified worker militancy. With no place left to go, and with opportunities no longer presenting themselves, perhaps workers will decide enough is enough. In that perspective, the upturns in strike activity of 2018, 2019, and October and November of last year may portend more strike activity to come.

The more basic lesson of the different measures and explanations of strikes is that it is mistaken to draw any large generalizations about the future of the labor movement. One clear takeaway from research on strikes is that each story has something to add to the “puzzle” of strikes. Strikes, in other words, have different purposes and different causes in different times and different places. Any prediction about an inevitable resurgence of the labor movement would be just as mistaken as a prediction about labor’s inescapable decline. The reasons for strike activity are too variable and context-dependent to generalize about as if they were a kind of natural process, unfolding before our eyes as detached, contemplating bystanders. This indeterminacy in the “causal laws” of strike activity perhaps means that workers’ agency has more relevancy than it is typically credited. Thus, perhaps the real story of strikes is that a labor movement will be reborn if workers collectively decide that it will be.

Matthew Dimick, a member of United University Professions Local 2190 NYSUT/AFT, teaches law at the University at Buffalo School of Law and does research on law and political economy, Marx, and critical theory.