Second, however, is a dramatic slump in both the number of strikes and strikers in 2020 as a result of the initial impact of the pandemic in general and the deep if brief recession it produced in the spring of that year. It should be noted, however, that many of the strikes that did occur in 2020 were those by non-union workers at outfits like Amazon, McDonald’s, and Instacart protesting unsafe conditions in the face of the rising pandemic. The increase in strikes resumed, however, in 2021.
Third, what makes 2021 in particular unique is not only the increase in numbers, but the increase in non-teacher, non-health care, mostly private sector strikes. There were 124 strikes by these workers across industries in 2021, far more than in any of the earlier post-Great Recession years. Table II show all those strikes by 500 or more workers This doesn’t include the 60,00 IATSE entertainment workers who reached a tentative agreement in October, but who have expressed dissatisfaction with the settlement. Or others, like the 37,000 Kaiser Permanente health care workers who may strike later in the year – or, indeed, the many others facing contract expirations in the coming year. So, there is a broader “uptick” in strike activity following the dislocating impact of the pandemic.
A slightly broader way to see this trend is as a long term “recovery” from the deep dislocation of the Great Recession of 2008-2010. The number of strikes recorded by the FMCS and the BLS had been falling for decades. In the late 1990s those recorded by the FMCS ran at an average close to 400 a year, falling to about 300 annually from 2000 to 2005 and slumping to a low of 103 in 2009. Major strikes measured by the BLS fell from 39 in 2000 to an all-time low of 5 in 2009. The number of strikes in this BLS account fell from 394,000 in 2000 to an incredible low of 12,500 in 2009. So, while none of the pre-recession figures represent historically high levels of strikes comparable to the 1930s, 1940s, or 1970s, the Great Recession did represent a fairly sharp downturn in strike activity. Seen in this way, the figures from 2018 to 2021 taken together and averaged can be interpreted as a return to pre-recession levels of strikes and strikers.
Seen in another way, however, workers learn from the victories of other workers and from the perception that their own conditions are shared by others across society. The education workers of 2018 and 2019 were, indeed, teaching others that when the conditions are right, the time to strike and win has come. Along with the many health care strikers taking on corporate giants they were also showing workers across industries that the experience of years of stagnant income and the stresses of lean, just-in-time work were the maladies of an entire class. If they could fight back, so could you.
The Accumulation of Grievances v. the Accumulation of Capital
There is, therefore, reason to believe that strike action and militancy in general will continue if we understand the “uptick” of 2018-2021 as the result not only of pandemic and conjunctural conditions, but of the accumulation of grievances over a long period – a period that is the result of capital’s desperate efforts to increase profits and off-set falling profit rates that returned soon after the recovery from the collapse of 2008-2010. As British labor historian Eric Hobsbawm put it in his study of worker upsurges, “explosive situations” are the result of “accumulations of inflammable material which only ignite periodically, as it were, under compression.”4Eric Hobsbawm, “Economic Fluctuations and Some Social Movements since 1800,” in Eric Hobsbawm, Labouring Men: Studies in the History of Labour (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1964), 139. The inflammable materials are the declining conditions of pay, work, and life and the accumulated grievances from these over many years. While such worker “explosions” are impossible to predict with any accuracy, they are always preceded by rising protests, strikes, and sometimes new or expanded organization often accompanied by other active social movements. Well-known examples include the strike waves before and after World War I, that during and after World War II, and the strike wave that lasted from the mid-1960s through the 1970s during the Vietnam War era.
Each of these strike waves was not only disrupted and then driven by the social and economic impact of a war but accompanied by and interrelated with other major social movements in addition to that of unionized and unionizing workers. In the years around World War I these were the movement of women’s suffrage and the rise of civil rights activity mainly through the NAACP and of Black nationalism. In the years following World War II, it was not only the massive strike wave of 1943–46, but the less visible yet important stirrings of civil rights activity often led by black veterans. The Vietnam war era saw the anti-war movement, the rebirth of feminism and the mass women’s movement, along with Black Power and the LGBTQ rights movement. Today’s “uptick” occurs, of course, in the wake of a renewed women’s movement, the immigrant workers’ movement, the movement to halt climate change, and the rise of Black Lives Matter and its various off-springs. It is already a period of considerable social activism. The strike “uptick” is possibly the precursor to a more substantial explosion.