“Striketober” and Labor’s Long Downturn
By any conceivable measure, 2020 was one of the most tumultuous years in recent American history. There was, for starters, a global public health crisis that produced millions of deaths across the world—hundreds of thousands in the US alone—while upending the daily lives of tens of millions more. In the US, the prevailing chaos was exacerbated by the palpable lunacy of its president, abetted as he was by a media class caught in his thrall. Political life often devolved into heated debates about who should wear masks when, with opposed camps often reduced to fisticuffs, on street corners, in school board meetings, and in grocery store aisles. Armed right-wing militias demonstrated inside state legislatures and plotted the kidnapping and murder of governors. What was in all likelihood the largest mass movement in recent US history hit the streets in late May, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd; millions of Americans participated in these riots and demonstrations, which continued to unfold over the summer, and whose consequences have yet to work their way through the social and political landscape. A presidential election whose results were contested by a sitting president and a QAnon-addled mob in early January added the final flourish. Millions of Americans were forcibly put out of work by the pandemic shutdowns; others were forced to work in exceptional, even intolerable, conditions. And yet, against this backdrop of riot and disorder, in February 2021 the Bureau of Labor Statistics published a new release confirming 2020 one of the lowest points of working class militancy in recent history, the third lowest since records began being kept in 1947: eight major work stoppages total in 2020, mobilizing just 20,000 workers out of workforce of over 160 million.1
This trend seemed to be broken or interrupted during the month of October of this year. Throughout October and early November, headlines in major US newspapers and business press announced the most dramatic surge in labor militancy in the US in years, even decades. The drumbeat of activity resounded on social media, where widely-shared, often anecdotal, reports of work stoppages from across the country gave rise to the hashtag #striketober. The timing of the pattern taking shape was significant. The two years preceding the pandemic shutdowns saw a notable, and surprising, return of the large-scale strike tactic among American workers, especially in the education sector: the dynamic public school teacher strikes in supposedly conservative states like Arizona, West Virginia, and Oklahoma seemed to herald, if haltingly, the reawakening of a US labor movement that had long been dormant. If the exceptional conditions of the pandemic seem, briefly, to have stamped out a new if still-burgeoning era of labor militancy, the events of this October suggested that labor’s comeback was still on track. But where the pre-pandemic uprising was centered largely in public education or, on occasion, the health care sector, the most visible confrontations in recent months have been in the US economy’s ever-contracting industrial core: miners in Alabama, workers in Kellogg’s plants in several states, and, front and center, a strike by 10,000 workers at John Deere.2 In addition to these sizable, signature actions—those that rise to the level of legally-recognized “strikes”—there has also been a proliferation of less visible, mostly small and short-lived, work stoppages across the country that echo, if inarticulately, these more formalized face-offs. Precisely because these kinds of actions mobilize small numbers of workers, are fleeting and for the most part spontaneous, their concatenation creates a kind of background noise, an atmosphere or mood of combativeness. For the most part occurring in private sector, non-unionized workplaces, these events assume significance only through their accumulation: they seem to emanate from a working class that, historically on its heels, is once again spoiling for a fight.
This Fall, then, as the country slowly groped its way out of the pandemic, American workers seemed to be picking up where they left off in 2019. But some observers argue that the recent surge in labor actions did not come out of nowhere. Though the BLS reports only eight major strikes for the whole of 2020, other sites tracking work disruptions through news reports and social media accounts, like Payday Report and Cornell’s School of Industrial Relations strike tracker, counted as many as 1,200 for 2020, and 1,400 between March 2020 and mid-summer 2021, before the onset of the October outbreak.3 Mike Duff, a professor of labor law at the University of Wyoming and one-time Teamsters shop steward, goes so far as to describe the ongoing pattern of activity as representing “one of the largest strike waves in decades.”4 These actions, it is true, usually only involve a handful of workers—20 here, 200 there—and last just a few hours. They are frequently provoked by what these workers perceive to be perilous working environments (understaffing, longer hours, forced overtime, speed-ups), conditions particularly prevalent during the pandemic in workplaces deemed “essential” (meat-packing plants, hospitals, distribution centers, etc.). Despite, then, the pandemic shutdowns depriving tens of millions of workers of employment, these shutdowns nevertheless explain in no small part the rise in work stoppages: for those compelled to work in often intolerable conditions, stopping work was often seen as a matter of life and death. Precisely because these actions are usually improvised by small groups of workers in improvised fashion, without the cohesion across workplaces typical of more organized stoppages, they generally go unnoticed by casual observers, and unrecognized by employers and government tracking agencies alike. However sporadic and defensive they might be, however much they lack both the strategic horizon and staying power of more articulate actions like those occurring at John Deere, this rumor-like “wave” (as Duff puts it) testifies to a sustained and growing grassroots militancy across the US working class, one leaping from sector to sector, spreading beneath and even beyond the impulse and direction of what remains of the organized labor movement.
What accounts for the readiness of American workers to refuse the exceptional working conditions first foisted upon them during pandemic? Why, now, are workers in the manufacturing sector willing to take the risk and initiative to demand higher wages, after decades of wage stagnation? Here the explanations vary according to the situation and the commentator. Workers at John Deere and elsewhere were fighting back against attempts by business owners to impose so-called “two-tier” employment contracts on different groups of workers in the same unionized workplace, effectively dividing their employees into two cohorts based on when they were hired. In the case of John Deere, specifically, the 10,000 workers on strike were not only resisting the normalization of working conditions imposed during the “emergency” period of the pandemic, they were also demanding a share of the record profits these same workers produced under those conditions.5 But when wage demands are today expressed by workers, whether by taking action in the workplace or indirectly by quitting work altogether, these demands are not always a claim on some share of higher, pandemic-era profits. News reports often suggest, anecdotally, that employers in the US have been willing to raise wages to attract workers as production expands after the pandemic falloff. A recent New York Times article notes, for example, that “employers are paying more to get those workers,” with average wages for private-sector workers up almost five percent over the last year. But though such gains are “high by recent standards,” they did not even keep pace with the rate of inflation over the same period of time.6 Others have suggested, implausibly, that workers feel emboldened by the disposition of the first “pro-labor” Democratic administration in a lifetime, and more generally by an imagined leftward drift in the Democratic party. What is widely agreed upon by all observers, however, is that the apparent “tightness” of the current labor market, the fact that employers’ demand for labor as post-pandemic production ramps up exceeds the supply of those willing and able to work, has created an environment in which workers are ready to risk confronting their bosses over intolerable working conditions and stagnant, indeed declining real wages (as inflation swallows up modest wage gains). What is also generally conceded is that, despite these winds at the American working class’s back, the relative weakness of the current revival of the US labor movement is a direct consequence of its historically low rates of unionization.
The discrepancy in the number of strikes counted by the BLS and strike trackers like those of Payday Reports and Cornell’s ILR raises important methodological questions with regard to how to measure the combativeness of the US working class at any given moment. The fact that the BLS only reports what it calls “large-scale” strikes—those involving at least 1,000 workers and lasting at least one shift—is not necessarily evidence of a conceptual weakness, a relic of a post-war era in which a large fraction of US workers toiled away in large industrial concerns (Ford’s River Rouge plant employed 103,000 in 1929, and as many as 60,000 in 1947). It stakes a claim to what constitutes a strike or significant labor activity to begin with. While tracking the sheer number of work interruptions—almost none of which rise to the level of strikes, as they are formally and legally defined—can emphasize the scope of working-class activity by capturing the sheer numbers of workplaces experiencing disruption of some sort, the scale of a given strike pattern is best measured by the number of workers mobilized in labor actions at any given time.7 According to Cornell ILR’s strike tracker, for example, the “number of workers on strike increased in October, to more than 25,000, versus an average of around 10,000 in the previous three months.”8 Kim Moody has recently suggested that January to October of this year indeed saw a considerable surge in labor actions in the US, 2.5 times as many as occurred in 2018 (194 compared to 76). Yet few will claim that the uptick in October represents a mobilization even remotely comparable to the public sector education strikes of that year, an assessment confirmed by the fact that the number of workers involved in this year’s “wave” is just 73,320, while 2018 mobilized over 7 times as many.9 Just as importantly, the effect of the teacher strikes of 2018 and 2019 was magnified by the site of the strikes themselves. Occupying a strategic position in the social division of labor, those work stoppages affected not only the working lives of those in the education sector, but often those whose availability for work depends on sending their children to school. If we take the BLS’s criteria for “major work stoppages” seriously, then, it becomes plausible to see 2020 less as an anomaly than a reversion to a long-standing trend. If 2020 witnessed the third lowest total of major work stoppages since 1947, the two lowest totals occurred during the recent, long recession that began in 2008 (2009 and 2017). In October 2021, a month during which commentators began to speak of a “‘workers’ economy,” strikes involving at least 1,000 workers totaled just three, which together involved fewer than 15,000 workers.10
The pattern that developed with the long and ongoing post-2008 recession—a dramatic drop-off in strike activity—can in fact be traced back much farther in time. We need only compare recent data to those collected in almost any year during the protracted economic boom in the decades after the Second World War. In 1974, for example, at the very end of that upswing, the number of large-scale work stoppages was 424, mobilizing 1.8 million workers; in 1949, at its beginning, 262 strikes occurred, but brought out as many as 2.5 million strikers. When we consider the size of the labor force in 1949 was just 60 million, far less than half its current size, we grasp just how momentous these work stoppages were: the equivalent of 1 in 25 of all US wage-laborers went on strike that year. Similar data can be found throughout this quarter-century period. Last year, the number was less than 1 in 5,000, a fraction closer to a rounding error than a substantial mobilization of the US working class.
The case is often made that levels of labor militancy prevailing at any given moment reflect, more or less strictly, the extent to which the working class is organized: the more densely organized it is, the more combative. The high point of the US labor movement was, precisely, the first decade after the end of the World War II, a period in which levels of union membership among US workers hit historical highs—cresting in 1955, the year of the merger of the AFL and CIO—and, more importantly, a period in which core industries like manufacturing, mining, construction, and transport saw unionization rates as high as 80 percent. The epoch of unrest opened by the strike wave of 1945-46 would persist, as noted above, well into the 1970s, even as unionization rates slowly but inexorably declined, before collapsing around 1980.
Understandably, the drop in both union membership and labor militancy (registered in strike activity) is often attributed to the concerted attacks on organized labor that formed a central pillar of the rightwing turn in US and British politics around that time (emblematically, Reagan’s confrontation with the air traffic controllers’ union, Thatcher’s war on the miners). This account is undoubtedly true, but explains little. To attribute the defeat of the US labor movement solely to this rightward turn in politics avoids addressing still more pressing questions raised by the epochal setback. Why, in the first place, was such a campaign at that particular historical moment necessary in the first place and, equally pertinent, what accounts for its success?
It is the case, after all, that the erosion of organizational density of the US working class began well before the assault launched by the capitalist class in the late 1970s; and it can be observed that the last, pronounced burst of labor militancy in the US occurred at the end of a long boom period that began in the late 1940s and was sustained over decades before crashing with a secular crisis that began in 1973-74. The so-called “long downturn” that began in the early-to-mid-1970s is defined by a period, stretching now over almost half a century, in which the leading macroeconomic indicators used to mark off phases of the business cycle entered into a prolonged downward spiral: whether one is considering GDP growth, labor productivity gains, rates of business investment, or wage growth, this period is defined by stagnation relieved, only for a brief spell, by a modest boom in the mid-to-late 90s. If we emphasize the correlation between secular crisis on the one hand, and the erosion of organizational density and a pronounced drop-off in labor militancy on the other, it is to propose a very different account of the decomposition of the US labor movement. In this alternative assessment, declining union density doesn’t explain much, nor, in turn, does the rightwing campaign against labor unions that is said to be the cause of their demise. We are compelled, instead, to seek out the reasons for the success of that concerted assault in deep, structural shifts in the relation between capital and labor.
Historical analysis of the strike activity of workers in industrialized nations tends to show that the frequency and scale of strike actions moves in concert with the business cycle: more specifically, that strike activity tends to intensify at a certain moment within the upswing, or period of “expansion,” during such cycles. The militancy of the working class, in other words, has a tendency to test business owners at moments when profit rates are elevated, production is augmented, and the demand for labor rises. It is this conjunction of rising profits, output, and demand for labor which defines, in strict terms, a “tight” labor market. It is only in such conditions that workers can make demands for a larger share of the profits produced in the private economy. When demand for labor is high, employers compete for it, and do so by raising wages; workers can strike for higher wages, or find them elsewhere by returning to the labor market. Above all, in periods of high profits and expanding production, employers are especially reluctant to interrupt their operations, for fear of missing out on a boom. They are therefore more likely to concede their employees’ demands, in the interests of maintaining their operations. Frequently, wage hikes will outstrip any gains in productivity realized by labor process innovations, resulting in inflation spikes (a phenomenon seen frequently during the long post-war boom). The confrontation between labor and capital will intensify, however, at the moment in the cycle when falling corporate profits (or “rising costs of production”) make conceding wage demands less palatable, or even impossible: when profits flag, the capitalist class must go on the offensive to maintain them at a level sufficient to continue the accumulation of capital. It is precisely at this moment, when rising wage demands meet falling profits, that capital will be willing to pursue the confrontation with workers, deploying any means necessary (wage freezes, speed-ups, etc.) to restore the rate of profit.
It goes without saying that an upturn in the business cycle does not guarantee a surge in strikes. What matters here is the relative regularity this pattern proposes, since it points to key material conditions within the broader class dynamic and production relations paving the way for an uptick in working-class militancy. We might see similar patterns if we zoom out historically and examine those less frequent occurrences that historians and sociologists call strike “waves.” This term has, as I noted, recently been used by some commentators to describe the concatenation of labor actions in 2021. Its exact definition is debated. Sociologist Charles Tilly famously offered a bluntly quantitative metric, suggesting that a “wave” occurs when the number of strikes and strikers in a given year is fifty percent higher than the average over the previous five years. Even if we incorporate all of the small-scale labor actions that are not registered by the BLS, but are tracked by sites like Cornell ILR’s strike tracker (which only began collecting data this year), 2021 is unlikely to surpass even the two years preceding the pandemic.
The term “strike wave,” however, has historically been used to describe moments of broader class struggle that occur with relative infrequency, but with a seeming regularity all the same: once every quarter century or so. The twentieth century, provided one is loose enough with dates, offers some useful examples: the waves of 1918–19 (echoed in the UK’s 1926 “general strike”), the 1945–49 wave (touching the US and Europe), and of course the wave unfurling from the mid-60s to the mid-70s, peaking in 1968. Here we can offer more qualitative assessments of such explosions. In these episodes, we witness not just more strikes, but the spread of strikes outside of the traditional industrial core, across sectoral and geographical divides. Such strike waves draw in new layers of the working class, including those who have not traditionally been an integral part of the institutionalized labor movement. Above all, the demands of the strikers become radical, more intransigent. As these struggles “generalize” across the class, the struggle itself spills out over its narrowly economic framework. As a broad confrontation between labor and capital takes shape, the role of the state in regulating accumulation and managing class conflict becomes more pronounced, and workplace struggle over working conditions and wages often mutates into a political conflict over distribution, the solution for which historically took the form of social spending to raise the social wage.
To understand the relative regularity of the occurrence of strike waves every quarter century or so, it is necessary to posit the existence of patterns of capitalist accumulation that unfold over longer periods than the standard, decade-long business cycle. These longer phases of upswing and downturn have the virtue of incorporating deep, structural changes in the labor process, whose full implementation requires decades. But such long-wave models quickly run up against a massive, recent historical fact: they anticipate a powerful strike wave around the turn of the century (or perhaps in the run up to the 2008 crash). Nothing of the sort occurred. But neither did the robust upswing such models see as laying the material groundwork for a surge in labor militancy. This is the great enigma of the past half-century. The period since the mid-1970s has, by most accounts, witnessed only a single, modest “boom,” with notable if historically shallow bumps in GDP growth, labor productivity, and business investment. Yet even then the trajectory of declining labor militancy in the US since the 1970s remained unbroken, reaching its nadir during the recession decade following 2008.
It is as if the traditional dynamic pattern of the business cycle, historically unfolding over roughly a decade and establishing, for a century or more, a predictable rise-and-fall pattern of strike activity, more or less broke down around 1980. This is what it means to speak of a “secular” crisis: one defined by a decades-long deterioration of the conditions that led to the high post-war rates of unionization and militancy.11 A once robust pendulum of boom and bust gave way to period of protracted stagnation in which recessions became more frequent, and more intense, while the expected “booms” turned out to be modest and ephemeral, incapable of reversing the trajectory set in motion by the 1970s crisis.
An epochal and structural shift in the composition of capital and the allocation of labor occurred over the course of this decline, as more and more of the labor force exited the densely-organized industrial sectors (mining, manufacturing, etc.) and resurfaced in the rapidly expanding “service” sector, at the very moment when women began to enter the labor force. These structural mutations recomposed the working class in dramatic fashion, shifting its center of gravity away from highly-capitalized industries—distinguished by high labor productivity and often enormous workplaces employing thousands of workers—to a fragmented, low-productivity service sector staffed increasingly by women (in many industries, women of color). The pattern of contracting growth of GDP, capital investment, and labor productivity, combined with the increasing segmentation of the working class itself according to skill, wage, labor process, gender, and race divisions, has been exacerbated by the restructuring of the manufacturing sector along international lines. The classical labor movement required a complex set of conditions for success: economic dynamism, first of all, defined by rapid industrialization of core sectors, combined with a largely national framework of accumulation, within which the state played the role of mediating conflict between capital and labor, and regulating accumulation. It was within these highly specific historical conditions that the organized labor movement, and its privileged tactic, the large-scale strike, found success and, indeed, played a crucial role in driving accumulation itself, as upward pressure on wages forced the capitalist class to continually increase the productivity of ever more dear labor. The deterioration of these conditions spelled the collapse of that movement.
The recent resurgence of workplace actions is bracing in this sense: it is a sign, however muffled, of a working class learning to fight again. But the levels of militancy exhibited by the US working class since the pandemic began fall, by most measures, well short not only of the “golden age” of the labor movement—this goes without saying—but even the modest surge of 2018 and 2019. We have every reason to believe that a new period of growth and dynamism in the US economy would create an environment in which new gains might be won by labor. But despite trillions of dollars being dumped into the US economy over the past 18 months, and despite fantasies on the liberal-left that such spending would bring about a Biden “boom,” the crisis clouds still hover low. Real GDP growth for the third quarter of 2021 has reverted back to pre-pandemic levels, at an annualized rate of two percent, while what little of the wage growth that has been reported, pushed upward by employers’ difficulty finding workers, has been erased by the largest inflation spike in decades. Perhaps most tellingly, job growth in the US economy has slowed dramatically after a few bounce-back months as businesses opened up again. The September job report was especially deflating, with fewer than 200,000 jobs added, a mere fraction of the five million jobs that must be restored merely to reach the pre-pandemic period’s lackluster levels. Indeed, the great mystery of the current moment is the hole left in the labor market by what The Wall Street Journal refers to as 4.3 million “missing” workers.12 Reports of an uptick in labor actions in the US have been accompanied by a spate of stories about workers quitting their jobs in record numbers, and leaving the workforce altogether (“the Great Resignation”).13 This trend is not a recent one. The crisis decade beginning in 2008, during which almost all job growth was in the low-wage service sector, saw the share of workers participating in the job market decline by almost four percent, to the tune of roughly five million workers. Despite the frequency with which “tight” labor markets are held to explain the current modest rise in strike activity, they are nothing of the sort, neither now nor in the years before the pandemic, when historically low “official” unemployment rates produced neither surging wage growth nor even a glimmer of inflation.
To confirm that the crisis period beginning in 2008 exhibited the lowest levels of major strike activity in the post-war period does not mean, however, that the working class in the US has not taken the initiative. In fact, the past decade represents one of the most politically dynamic periods in recent history, if one measures this by the number, scale, and inventiveness of recent social movements. One need only recall the curious fact that the George Floyd rebellion, which brought millions of American workers into the streets, took place at the very heart of the pandemic shutdowns, when tens of millions of these same workers were forcibly separated from work. In this sense, the past decade represents the highest level of social conflict since the early 1970s. That these movements incorporated large numbers of students and educated liberals, and were preyed upon by Democratic party hacks when they were not actively suppressed by them, does not make them any less workers’ movements, if we consider who made up their combative core (here, the George Floyd movement is exemplary). That workers have found it necessary to take to the streets rather than deploy the strike weapon is due in part to the objectives of the movements themselves, as when they have confronted anti-Black violence carried out by the state. But they took to the streets, as well, because the streets provided favorable terrain for their action when the workplace, and the prevailing crisis environment, did not. It is possible that the current strikes and labor actions represent a migration of this broader class confrontation back into the workplace. It is unlikely, though, that this development will result in the return of the classical labor movement, with its organizational density, its successful deployment of the strike tactic, and its role in driving accumulation.
“The strike,” one important sociologist has recently written, “is not the only significant form in which labor unrest is expressed.” In situations in which the strike tactic becomes difficult or impossible, she writes, labor unrest will assume other less visible and less legal (“anonymous and hidden”) forms: “slowdowns, absenteeism, and sabotage,” not to mention “demonstrations, riots and factory occupations.”14 The recent surge in labor unrest in the US, however modest it has been, could very well open to the emergence of a new figure of the labor movement, one with much closer ties to the social movements workers are already participating in, one more permeable to the struggles taking place just outside the nursing homes, the big box stores, and the high-end restaurants.
“Major Work Stoppages in 2020,” Bureau of Labor Statistics, February 19, 2021; https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/wkstp.pdf
On the strike at John Deere, see Joshua Furman and Gabriel Winant, “The John Deere Strike Shows the Tight Labor Market Is Ready to Pop,” The Intercept, October 17, 2021; https://theintercept.com/2021/10/17/john-deere-strike-labor-market/
Payday Report’s “strike tracker” is the source of this count. See https://paydayreport.com/covid-19-strike-wave-interactive-map/ In May of this year, Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations launched its own tracker, which uses a similar methodology for gathering data. It can be found here: https://striketracker.ilr.cornell.edu/
“The Bureau of Labor Statistics Counted Only Eight Strikes in 2020, Payday Report Counted 1,200,” Center for Economic and Policy Research, July 13, 2021; https://cepr.net/the-bureau-of-labor-statistics-counted-only-eight-strikes-in-2020-payday-report-counted-1200/
Jonah Furman, “‘Let's Put a Wrench in Things Now’: Deere Workers Strike as Company Rakes in Record Profits,” Labor Notes, October 20, 2021; https://www.labornotes.org/2021/10/lets-put-wrench-things-now-deere-workers-strike-company-rakes-record-profits
The Consumer Price Index rose at an annualized rate of 6.2 percent in October, the biggest increase in three decades.
Typically, strike activity is measured according to three measures or dimensions: number of strikes, number of workers involved, and number of hours or days lost to the strikes. Most reporting on labor actions this Fall have emphasized the first dimension.
Noam Scheiber, “How the Pandemic Has Added to Labor Unrest,” The New York Times, November 1, 2021; https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/01/business/economy/strikes-labor-pandemic.html
See “Upticks, Waves, and Social Upsurge: The Strikes of 2021 in Context,” Spectre, November 15, 2021; https://spectrejournal.com/upticks-waves-and-social-upsurge/
An observer is quoted in a recent article: “A record 4.4 million Americans quit their jobs in September as labor market tumult continued. It’s really a workers’ economy. It’s a good time for people to be moving. Employees are really in charge for the first time in a long time.” See Eli Rosenberg, The Washington Post, November 12, 2021; https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2021/11/12/job-quit-september-openings/
In his Riot.Strike.Riot (New York: Verso, 2016), Joshua Clover maps the rise and decline of the strike tactic onto what he calls the “arc of accumulation” or a “metacycle,” punctuated by an ongoing secular crisis (deindustrialization, falling rate of profit, etc.) beginning around 1973.
Josh Mitchell, Lauren Weber and Sarah Chaney Cambon, “4.3 Million Workers Are Missing. Where Did They Go?,” The Wall Street Journal, October 14, 2021;
On the “Great Resignation,” see Charles Reeve, “Covid and the ‘Great Resignation’,” September 13, 2021; https://autonomies.org/2021/09/covid-and-the-great-resignation/
Beverly Silver, Forces of Labor: Workers’ Movements and Globalization Since 1870 (Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 35.