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The Year in Strikes

Educators with Acero charter schools strike outside Chicago Public Schools headquarters, 42 W. Madison St., before the start of the Chicago Board of Education monthly meeting, Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

I was lucky enough to be interviewed for this Steven Greenhouse overview of the year in strikes. You can find my own quotes in there if you want, but the whole piece is outstanding. Here’s the intro:

For years, many labor experts seemed ready to write the obituary of strikes in America. In 2017, the number of major strikes—those involving more than 1,000 workers—dwindled to just seven in the private sector. Indeed, over the past decade, there were just 13 major strikes a year on average. That’s less than one-sixth the average annual number in the 1980s (83), and less than one-twentieth the yearly average in the 1970s (288).In 1971 alone, 2.5 million private-sector workers went on strike, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics—that’s 100 times the number, 25,000, who went on strike in 2017.

But then came 2018 and a startling surge of strikes in both the private and public sectors. More than 20,000 teachers and other school employees walked out in West Virginia in February, followed by at least 20,000 more in Oklahoma. Probably the biggest educators’ strike came in Arizona, where more than 40,000 walked out. There were smaller, but still large, teacher walkouts in Colorado, Kentucky, and North Carolina.

This past September, 6,000 hotel workers went on strike against 26 Chicago hotels to demand year-round health coverage for all hotel workers. In October, 7,700 workers struck 23 Marriott hotels in eight cities, including Boston, Detroit, Honolulu, and San Francisco. In November, 15,000 patient-care workers, including radiology technicians, respiratory therapists, and pharmacy workers, held a three-day strike against the University of California’s medical centers in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Irvine, and Davis. An additional 24,000 union members, including truck drivers, gardeners, and cooks, struck in sympathy. And in one of the most startling work stoppages of all, an estimated 20,000 Google workers walked out on November 1 to protest how the company handled sexual harassment accusations against top managers. “That was remarkable,” says labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein, pleased to see that even the elite workers at one of the world’s more prominent tech companies recognize the effectiveness of collective worker action.

Some labor experts say the recent surge of strikes could portend a new wave of labor activism, as more and more workers see that collective action can pay off. Others argue that the recent surge is more likely a one-time blip of militancy that will fade away as organized labor’s long-term decline continues.

“The underlying factor connecting the various disputes [other than the Google walkout] is an improving economy in which certain groups feel left out,” says Jake Rosenfeld, a sociology professor at Washington University-St. Louis. Teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona walked out after they grew frustrated and furious that they hadn’t received an across-the-board pay increase in years even though the economy was strong and their state legislatures were handing out big tax breaks to business. Similarly, Marriott’s workers went on strike after Marriott—which is enjoying record profits—had offered them a modest raise that barely kept up with inflation.

“They made us a very bad offer on wages,” says Yolanda Murray, a kitchen steward in the Marriott-operated Westin Book Cadillac Hotel in Detroit. “We had to walk. It was a very hard decision. I explained to my son what I had to do. I had to show him what’s right for us.”

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