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Why so many workers are going on strike these days

Kristin Schwab Jun 28, 2023
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Above, striking Starbucks workers in November. Data show that the number of workers who went on strike increased by nearly 50% in 2022. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Why so many workers are going on strike these days

Kristin Schwab Jun 28, 2023
Heard on:
Above, striking Starbucks workers in November. Data show that the number of workers who went on strike increased by nearly 50% in 2022. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
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The number of workers on strike since the beginning of the pandemic has been climbing. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show the number of workers who went on strike increased by nearly 50% last year, compared to 2021.

And since the beginning of this year, we’ve seen Starbucks employees and Hollywood writers walk off the job. UPS workers and United Airlines pilots have voted to authorize strikes.

The ebbs and flows of worker power generally move with the ebbs and flows of the economy.

“It tends to be cyclical that in a stronger economy that workers are more willing to walk off the job,” said Harry Holzer, a professor of public policy at Georgetown University.

Workers know they have more bargaining power, “the employers need them more,” Holzer added. “It’s harder to hire replacements.”

That was certainly the case when businesses reopened during the pandemic — and it’s still mostly the case now that the federal public health emergency declaration has ended.

And the pandemic motivated strikes, said Holzer. COVID made a lot of essential workers feel unappreciated and made a lot of workers in general feel burnt out. Plus, many people are rethinking the role of work in their lives.

“I think a lot of people came out of the pandemic feeling like they didn’t necessarily want to take the usual guff,” Holzer said.

Meanwhile, public support can bolster worker confidence to move forward with a strike. While union membership rates have been steadily declining, a Gallup poll from last year put Americans’ approval of labor unions at more than 70%.

“Which is the highest it’s been in decades,” said Paul Clark, a professor of labor and employment relations at Penn State.

He added that union support is strongest among Gen Z, who are up to 26 years old. They’re now aging into the workforce.

“So what you see in the labor movement today is an influx of young workers, much more diversity. And this brings energy and enthusiasm,” Clark said.

It’s the kind of energy and enthusiasm that can ripple beyond unions, per Margaret Poydock, a policy analyst at the Economic Policy Institute.

“So, you know, if there are unionized workers who are going on strike and they get their demands of increased wages and certain benefits, research shows that unions have spillover effects,” she said.

In other words, if a big airline, retailer or restaurant chain improves working conditions or increases pay, other companies in those industries may follow.

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