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News from EPI Number of striking workers declined in 2020 but data fail to capture many COVID-19 worker-safety walkouts

A new EPI analysis of data released this morning from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) show that the number of workers involved in major strikes declined in 2020 to 24,000, the lowest count since 2009 during the Great Recession. This follows an upsurge in major work stoppages in 2018 and 2019 when, in a substantial departure from a longer run downward trend, an annual average of 455,400 workers were involved in major work stoppages.

“While low unemployment and anemic wage growth likely explained the large increase in strikes in 2018 and 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic and high unemployment led to the sudden drop in 2020,” said EPI Policy Director and Senior Economist Heidi Shierholz. “The longer-run decline in major strike activity and the current lower level of action despite continued risks under the pandemic highlight the need to strengthen the right to strike. The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act would restore workers’ right to strike and help ensure that workers have the leverage they need to secure their share of economic growth.”

However, the BLS data fail to capture many walkouts for worker safety 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 the actions taken by many workers who walked off the job in 2020 to demand a healthy and safe workplace during the pandemic—including walkouts by fast food and retail workers that called attention to inadequate protections for front-line workers. Directing more resources to BLS would enable more comprehensive tracking of work stoppages and provide policymakers with a clearer picture of how workers are able to exercise their collective bargaining rights.

“Essential workers across the country organized walkouts to voice their concerns about low pay and unsafe working conditions, but many of these walkouts were not included in the BLS data,” said EPI Policy Associate Margaret Poydock. “Even with the limited knowledge we have, it’s evident that strikes are an effective tool to improve the pay and working conditions of working people. Therefore, strengthening the right to strike for workers needs to be at the heart of labor law reform, and that starts with passing the PRO Act.”

Higher education service workers were among those who went on major strikes in 2020. In September, over 4,000 workers at the University of Illinois at Chicago went on strike calling for minimum wage increases, adequate staffing levels, and safer working conditions during the coronavirus pandemic. The 10-day strike concluded after agreeing to a four-year contract that provided across-the-board raises and back pay for all workers, safe staffing levels to limit exposure to the coronavirus, personal protective equipment, protections against outsourcing, and establishing a $15 minimum wage for building service workers.