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News from EPI Major strike activity increased in 2021 but remains below pre-pandemic levels

In conjunction with an increased momentum around unions and union activity, the number of workers involved in major strikes increased in 2021 to 80,700, according to an EPI analysis of data released this morning from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). This is an increase from the number of workers involved in major worker stoppages in 2020, which was 27,000—however it is still a significant decline from pre-pandemic levels.

Crucially, the BLS data do not capture all strike activity because it only includes strikes involving 1,000 or more workers lasting at least one full shift. These size and duration limits mean that the BLS data did not capture actions taken by many workers who walked off the job to demand fair pay and safe working conditions during the pandemic.

Crucial reforms in the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act would strengthen workers’ ability to strike by prohibiting employers from permanently replacing striking workers. Other necessary reforms include the Striking Workers Healthcare Protection Act, which would require employers to continue providing health insurance to workers on strike.

“Workers are turning to strikes to fight for better wages, benefits, and working conditions during the pandemic. This activity is occurring despite the obstacles current labor law poses to workers to effectively engage in their fundamental right to strike,” said Margaret Poydock, EPI policy analyst and government affairs specialist. “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.”

The analysis highlights key work stoppages that occurred in 2021 covered by the BLS data, including strikes at John Deere and Kellogg’s that attracted significant media attention. The analysis also cites examples of smaller—but still significant—work stoppages not covered in the BLS data, including at Saint Vincent Hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts, where more than 800 nurses went on strike for nearly 10 months. The strike ended after an agreement was reached that would improve staff-to-patient ratios, strengthen workplace safety provisions, boost benefits, and allow the striking nurses to return to their old jobs.

“One of the most prominent forms of worker power last year was the use of strikes. Throughout 2021, strikes provided workers critical leverage to bargain over fair pay, safe working conditions, and a share of the pandemic recovery,” said John Schmitt, senior economist and senior adviser at EPI. “Now, it’s up to policymakers to strengthen the right to strike, and that starts with passing the PRO Act.”