Number of striking US workers rose 141% in 2023

The number of striking workers in the United States, particularly in private-sector industries, more than doubled from 2022 to 2023, according to a report published Feb. 15 by the ILR School.

Additionally, striking workers’ top three demands were the same in 2023 as the year before: better pay, health and safety, and staffing, according to Kathryn Ritchie ’24, the report’s lead author.

Co-authors are Johnnie Kallas, Ph.D. ’23, who launched the Cornell-ILR Labor Action Tracker in 2021 and is now an assistant professor at the University of Illinois School of Labor and Employment Relations; and doctoral student Deepa Kylasam Iyer.

“The increase in strike activity is the biggest labor relations development of 2023,” said Alexander Colvin, Ph.D. ’99, ILR’s Kenneth F. Kahn ’69 Dean and Martin F. Scheinman ’75, M.S. ’76, Professor of Conflict Resolution, and Kallas’ doctoral adviser.

“The rising numbers show the impact of a series of major strikes involving large numbers of workers who walked off the job for significant periods of time,” Colvin said. “The strike has always been at the core of labor bargaining power. This rise in strike action after many years of diminished activity indicates a union resurgence that is shifting the balance of power back toward labor.”

In 2023, there were 466 strikes and four lockouts involving about 539,000 workers, more than double the 2022 number of 224,000 workers. A series of mid-year strikes in 2023 became known as the “hot labor summer.”

Last year’s strike days – the duration of the strike multiplied by the approximate number of workers – totaled 24.8 million, up from 4.5 million in 2022.

Other key findings in the 2023 report:

  • The 2023 surge in striking workers was primarily due to the SAG-AFTRA, Kaiser Permanente, Los Angeles Unified School District and the United Auto Workers strikes. These strikes accounted for about 65% of all workers involved in work stoppages.
  • The number of work stoppages involving demands for a first contract (following a vote by workers to organize into a union) more than doubled from 36 in 2022 to 74 in 2023.
  • Workers in the accommodation and food service industry organized the highest number (33%) of work stoppages of any sector but only accounted for 6% of the total number of workers on strike. Of these strikes, 128 work stoppages, or 82%, were organized by Starbucks Workers United or SEIU’s Fast Food campaign.
  • The number of workers involved in work stoppages was more evenly dispersed across industries, with information, health care and social assistance, and educational services as the top three industries.
  • The percentage of all strikes organized by nonunion workers in 2023 was 22%, compared to 37% in 2021 and 31% in 2022.
  • Most work stoppages continue to be short, with 62% lasting fewer than five days. However, about half of workers involved in work stoppages in 2023 were on the picket line for over a month.
  • More work stoppages occurred in the West than in any other region. The majority of workers on strike were also located in the West.

“Labor activism continued to rise in 2023, with more strikes and workers on strike than any year since we began the project in 2021,” Kallas said. “The last time roughly this many workers went on strike was in 2018 and 2019, fueled by statewide educator strikes. But this year, large strikes were much more dispersed throughout numerous private sector industries.”

The tracker was designed to share a comprehensive picture of nationwide workplace conflict with policymakers, practitioners, scholars and the public. It counts all work stoppages, no matter the size, filling a data void; stoppages involving fewer than 1,000 workers aren’t included in the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics database. In the 1980s, the Reagan administration cut funding for counting smaller stoppages.

Tracker data is pulled from public sources, including existing work stoppage databases, news articles and social media posts.

Mary Catt is communications director for the ILR School.

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