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The Number of Major Strikes in the US Doubled in 2021 From 2020

  • The number of major work stoppages that began in a given year doubled from eight in 2020 to 16 in 2021.
  • These numbers are much lower than what was seen in prior decades.
  • Workers have been on strikes and lockouts seeking better pay and conditions, among other demands.

In 2021, workers made it clear that the old way of work might not cut it anymore — and many acted with their feet.

There were 16 major work stoppages that started in 2021, according to new data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The agency defines a major work stoppage as involving 1,000 or more workers, with the action lasting at one shift during the workweek.

2021 saw twice as many big strikes and lockouts as the previous year, as only eight major work stoppages began in 2020. 

The number of workers involved in major strikes also spiked, from just 27,000 workers walking out during actions that began in 2020 to 80,700 workers in 2021 — amounting to nearly three times as many workers stopping work than the year before.

But both the numbers of work stoppages, or strikes and lockouts, in 2020 and 2021 are far lower than in previous decades. BLS reports that in 1952, there were 470 work stoppages — the highest annual total number. The lowest number of work stoppages came in 2009, with just five. 

“​​Between the years 2000-2021, there have been an average of 17 work stoppages beginning in the year,” BLS wrote in a news release.

The following chart shows how many major work stoppages began each year since 1947:

While the number of work stoppages still pales in comparison to previous highs seen decades ago — and even in the years leading up to the pandemic — the resurgence shows how workers are making their voices heard in the post-vaccine era. 

For six straight months there have been over 4 million quits, and this trend shows no signs of slowing just yet. The wave of strikes that picked up towards the end of 2021 might be another trend that only accelerates, as wages continue to grow and workers continue to switch into jobs with better pay and benefits.

“This activity is occurring despite the obstacles current labor law poses to workers to effectively engage in their fundamental right to strike,” Margaret Poydock, a policy analyst and government affairs specialist at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, said in a statement. “Crucial reforms like the PRO Act would strengthen the right to strike and help ensure that workers have the leverage they need to secure their share of economic growth during the recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.”

Workers want better pay, among other demands 

Notably, the BLS report only tracks major work stoppages, which include over 1,000 workers, but there were other work stoppages in 2021 with fewer workers involved.

“Workers are turning to strikes to fight for better wages, benefits, and working conditions during the pandemic, but many work stoppages were not included in the BLS data,” Poydock said.

A report compiled by researchers at Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations School, who created the ILR Labor Action Tracker which tracks strikes across the country, sheds some light on just how many workers walked out and why. 

The researchers found there were 265 work stoppages encompassing 140,000 workers in 2021, and the demands for workers varied from pay to a $15 minimum wage as seen in the following chart:

The researchers at Cornell noted that a work stoppage could have involved more than one demand and that the above list isn’t exhaustive.

According to the ILR report, the most common demand among strikers was pay. That was followed by healthcare and health and safety, two issues that have become particularly prescient for workers who suddenly became “essential” and found themselves working on the frontlines of the pandemic. 

“You know, we worked seven days a week, 12 hours a day through COVID to get Kellogg’s to earn their record profits. And we never shut down their plants at all through absenteeism,” Dan Osborn, an 18-year veteran of Kellogg’s and one of 1,400 workers there who went on strike in October 2021, told Insider while he was out striking. “That doesn’t sit well with our members, the sacrifices that we’ve made.”

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