U.S. Workers Strike Less Often Than in Past

Richard Hurd, professor of industrial and labor relations at Cornell University, talks with Robert Siegel about why strikes have become less frequent, and shorter in duration, in the United States.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

What happened to the strike? Are labor relations so much better now than they used to be? Or does the contemporary economy or federal law make it less attractive a tactic?

Richard Hurd is professor of industrial and labor relations at Cornell University. And he joins us from Ithaca, New York.

Professor Hurd, first, how much less common are strikes nowadays than, say 50 years ago?

RICHARD HURD: If you compare today's strike level to previous strike levels, there's certainly been a dramatic decline. And we are less than one-tenth of the number of strikes in a typical year that we had back in the 1970s.

SIEGEL: What's so different between now and the 1970s?

HURD: Well, there's two big changes: One happened in the 1980s when we effectively had a reinterpretation of labor law. When Ronald Reagan was president, his appointees to the National Labor Relations Board reinterpreted what it meant to bargaining good faith, and said that all employers have to do to bargaining good faith is to come to the negotiating table and talk. With that reinterpretation of a law, it was easier for employers to stonewall. And then, the workers eventually would go out on strike and employers would replace them.

SIEGEL: But the employer would have to wait for the union to go out on strike in that case.

HURD: That's right.

SIEGEL: You couldn't do that if you lock the workers out.

HURD: That's right. And if the employer refuse to bargain and the union went out on strike and the National Labor Relations Board determined that the employer had committed an unfair labor practice for failure to bargaining good faith, then the workers would not lose their jobs. They would have a right to take their jobs back. Or if the employer locks out workers, they refuse to let workers continue to work when the contract expires, the employees have a right to get their job back. It was this interpretation of the law, which sounds sort of subtle but it had a big impact.

SIEGEL: Now the global economy is has also changed a great deal from those days.

HURD: That's the other thing. All right. For manufacturing, in particular, the global economy is a really big issue. Companies now are global companies. They can shift production to other countries. They can sometimes do it during a strike. Furthermore, they can shift production to other countries permanently.

SIEGEL: Let me ask you about something else that - oh, I wonder if you think it might have an effect. When strikes were most common - I think 1946 was the high water mark of those labor strikes. In those days, Americans saved about 10 percent of their personal income. And that was down from much higher levels during the war. That rate hasn't been over 3 percent since 1999 and it's a negative right now. Is it possible that a lot of American workers don't think enough about the long term to be able to afford to strike or to want to go out on strike for what might be gained for it?

HURD: Well, you certainly have to look at the total picture. And for a union to go on strike, the workers have to be willing to support the strike. And so certainly, one piece of it would be can workers afford it? Similar to that - similar to the issue of whether they can afford to go on strike - is the attitude. Workers have to be very militant, strong, pro-union, do anything to keep the union strong.

And it's pretty clear that today's workers - at least in the manufacturing industries that have been losing jobs - are very cautious about challenging the company, very cautious about the likely economic impact of that. Worried not just about whether they have the savings to weather a strike, but whether the job will still be there when they got done.

SIEGEL: What kind of strikes do you think we might see in the future, if any at this point?

HURD: I think we'll still have strikes. There'll be here indefinitely. But what we've seen over the past 10 years is an increase in more creative uses of the strike tactic. If you look at what's happening just today and yesterday in California, a group of nurses are striking against one hospital chain for two days. It's announced as a two-day strike.

So there's no incentive for the employer to make a quick change and the union can send a message. And there was a two-day taxi strike in New York last week. The auto strikes - both of them, very short term strikes - were designed to send a message than to exact any kind of economic leverage against the company.

SIEGEL: Well, Professor Hurd, thank you very much for talking with us.

HURD: Certainly.

SIEGEL: That's Richard Hurd, professor of industrial and labor relations at Cornell University.

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