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High-profile strikes could start to reverse decades-long decline in job actions

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The U.S. has seen a rise in private-sector strikes this year, but there was a time when walkouts used to be even more common. As Danielle Kaye reports, the recent wave of high-profile job actions could start to reverse a decadeslong decline.

DANIELLE KAYE, BYLINE: Fifty years ago, in the early 1970s, Joe Uehlein was a construction worker in Pennsylvania, building a bridge over the Susquehanna River. Structures built in the middle of the water were leaking, putting workers in danger, and his boss wasn't listening to workers' safety concerns.

JOE UEHLEIN: He wouldn't allow us to stop. He just wanted us to bail the water out and then keep working.

KAYE: So Uehlein and a couple hundred of his colleagues went on strike for three days alongside several hundred other workers. Electricians, engineers, construction workers won big gains.

UEHLEIN: And specifically that we would have a special health and safety representative.

KAYE: Walkouts were common from post-World War II through the 1970s. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows in 1970, there were 381 large strikes in the U.S. involving roughly 2.5 million workers. But that all changed in 1981, when President Ronald Reagan fired more than 11,000 striking air traffic controllers.

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RONALD REAGAN: And if they do not report for work within 48 hours, they have forfeited their jobs and will be terminated.

KAYE: There was a shift in the balance of power. Uehlein was a labor organizer back then.

UEHLEIN: And it just kind of opened the door and lent legitimacy to the corporate onslaught that followed.

KAYE: Government data shows the impact of Reagan's union busting. There was a steep drop in the number of big strikes, from hundreds each year to dozens. Joseph McCartin is a labor historian at Georgetown University.

JOSEPH MCCARTIN: Strikes educate workers about how to strike. The disappearance of strikes meant that we had a whole generation of workers emerge who'd never been part of a collective action. Some of them had never seen a picket line.

KAYE: Fast-forward to 2023. Now that balance of power is shifting again - to workers. Workers in a range of industries are walking off the job. The pandemic, coupled with inflation and rising economic inequality, has played a big role in this year's strike activity. Strikes and threats of strikes have proven to be effective. A handful of unions have used this leverage to get better pay and benefits. UPS workers won big pay raises after their union threatened a nationwide strike. Autoworkers at the Detroit Three have been on strike for weeks now, and this week, they reached a tentative deal with Ford, which includes pay raises of roughly 25% and job security gains.

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UNIDENTIFIED AUTOWORKERS: No bucks, no trucks. No bucks, no trucks. No bucks, no trucks.

KAYE: Shawn Fain, the president of the United Auto Workers union, has become the face of the historic autoworkers strike. Here's Fain talking outside a Stellantis assembly plant in Michigan.

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SHAWN FAIN: That's what it's been about from day one, is getting a fair agreement for our membership. We don't want to be out here on strike. But we're going to do whatever the hell we got to do to get it.

KAYE: Fain has acknowledged strikes aren't ideal. They disrupt the economy and workers' paychecks, but it's often the most powerful tool workers have. The number of big strikes this year still pales in comparison to the 1970s and the decades before. McCartin of Georgetown says that trend is starting to be reversed.

MCCARTIN: I think it's quite possible we look back at this moment and this time as a turning point as well, a turn away from the kind of dynamics that have defined power in the American workplace since the 1980s.

KAYE: The labor movement may not be where it was 50 years ago, but today, McCartin says, workers and unions are once again embracing strikes as leverage.

For NPR News, I'm Danielle Kaye. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Danielle Kaye
Danielle Kaye (she/her) is a 2022-2023 Kroc Fellow. Before joining NPR, Kaye worked as a business reporter at Reuters, where she covered compensation policies and union organizing at technology and retail companies. She graduated from UC Berkeley in 2021 with degrees in Global Studies and French. While studying in Berkeley, Kaye reported and produced for listener-funded radio station KPFA, covering protests and housing issues in California for KPFA's morning public affairs show. She was also a researcher at UC Berkeley's Human Rights Investigations Lab and a news reporter and editor at the student-run newspaper The Daily Californian. Kaye lived with a host family in Dakar, Senegal, in 2019, which inspired her to write her senior thesis about threats to Senegal's artisanal fishing communities.