National strikes such as the one that the United Auto Workers waged against General Motors Corp. have become rare, largely because of the waning influence of labor unions.
There were just 20 strikes and lockouts involving more than 1,000 people last year. That compares with 470 a little more than half century ago, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Often they are used to humiliate big business.
For example, investment banker JP Morgan Chase was greatly embarrassed earlier this year by a video created by Service Employees International Union, which sought to unionize security workers at the bank. The video – airing on YouTube.com – shows a man rifling through trash outside a Chase bank branch in New York and finding customer data, replete with Social Security number and date of birth.
At one time unions relied heavily on the threat of strikes to make their presence felt.
But more recently courts have made it easier for companies to replace striking workers, said Ian Gold, who directs strategic research and campaigns for the Teamsters.
"All that stuff has tipped the balance so far in management's favor that unions are very reticent – and it was always sort of a last resort anyway – to go down that path," Gold said.
At the same time the ranks of unions have thinned relative to the workforce.
Richard Hurd, professor of labor relations at Cornell University, said unions have had to switch gears as their influence diminished.
"Unions have determined that if they're going to have influence on corporate decisions and reach agreements that are beneficial to them that what they need to do is find alternative forms of leverage," he said.
Ways Unions Bolster Position
Hurd said unions are pursuing two basic strategies: alliances with corporations, and media campaigns against corporations.
When it comes to forming partnerships with companies, the organization agrees to let the union organize. In turn, the union tries to act in a non-adversarial manner.
But when that fails many unions become aggressive about public relations – even employing researchers to dig up embarrassing tidbits.
Gold said unions are becoming increasingly shrewder about using information against companies.
"The more stones you look under in a corporation's overall behavior you're likely to find many things that the public isn't aware of," he said.
When unions were attempting to organize hotel workers in Houston, for instance, they were able to find data from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration that indicated many hotel maids were being injured by lifting heavy mattresses. But after the data was published, hotel owners agreed to change work rules and allow housekeepers to work in teams.
"They were able to negotiate on terms that were favorable to them by organizing public campaigns and not having to resort to a strike," Hurd said.
Buying Stock to Bargain
But when fighting large companies they've even taken to buying shares of stock in order to address board members and stockholders at annual meetings.
Many unions have also bought stock in companies in order to garner a platform at shareholder meetings. That makes it easier to exert pressure on public pension funds that may own shares in the companies, according to Linda Trann, spokeswoman for the Service Employees International Union.
"If you know union members' money is going into a pension fund that has shares in a company that's intimidating workers or preventing them from forming a union, that's an issue that definitely gets raised," said Trann.
The Service Employees International Union has seen its ranks increase. But union membership as a whole hasn't increased much in recent years.
Most unions continue to operate from a position of weakness rather than strength, especially when they represent pools of low-skilled workers who can be easily replaced.
Unions know that, which is why they've had to search for new ways to accomplish their goals.