RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And a strike like the one against GM is rare these days. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says last year, there were just 20 strikes and lockouts involving workforces of more than a thousand people. And, of course, in this case with GM, it was 73,000 workers. To compare, in 1952, there were 470 strikes. As the influence of labor unions has waned, strikes have become less effective, and labor unions are relying on other strategies to hold their ground.
NPR's Jim Zarroli reports.
JIM ZARROLI: Earlier this year, a video appeared on YouTube that caused a lot of embarrassment for JPMorgan Chase. The video showed a man going through the trash outside a Chase branch in New York City and finding lots of discarded documents containing data about customers.
(Soundbite of YouTube video)
Unidentified Man: His Social Security number is here, as well as his date of birth. There's a business credit application here as well.
ZARROLI: The video was created by the Service Employees International Union, which was trying to unionize security workers at the bank. At one time, unions relied heavily on the threat of strikes to make their presence felt.
But Iain Gold, who directs Strategic Research and Campaigns for the Teamsters, says over time, the courts have made it easier for companies to replace striking workers.
Mr. IAIN GOLD (Director, Strategic Research and Campaigns Department, 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 - but very reticent to go down that path.
ZARROLI: At the same time, the ranks of unions have thinned relative to the workforce as a whole.
Richard Hurd, professor of labor relations at Cornell, University says with their influence diminishing, unions have had to switch gears.
Professor RICHARD HURD (Director and Professor, Industrial and Labor Relations, Cornell University): 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.
ZARROLI: Hurd says unions are pursuing two basic strategies. One is to form partnerships with companies. It's a kind of a bargain: The companies agreed to let the unions organize. The unions try to act in a non-adversarial manner. But when that fails, many unions have tried to become more aggressive at public relations. Most big unions employ researchers to dig up dirt.
And Iain Gold of the Teamster says unions have learned how to use what they find against companies.
Mr. GOLD: 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.
ZARROLI: For instance, when unions were attempting to organize hotel workers in Houston, they were able to find data from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The numbers indicated that many hotel maids were being injured by lifting heavy mattresses. Hurd says after the data was published, hotel owners agreed to change work rules and allow housekeepers to work in teams.
Dr. HURD: They were able to negotiate on terms that were favorable to them by using corporate campaigns and not having to resort to a strike.
ZARROLI: Many unions have also bought stock in companies as a way of buying a platform at shareholder meetings. That makes it easier to exert pressure on big public pensions funds that may own shares in the companies.
Linda Tran is a spokeswoman for the SEIU.
Ms. LINDA TRAN (Spokeswoman, Service Employees International Union): If, you know, union members' money is going into a pension fund that has shares in a company that is intimidating workers or preventing them from forming a union, that's an issue that definitely gets raise.
ZARROLI: The SEIU has seen its rank increase, but union membership as a whole hasn't increased much in recent years. Most unions continued to operate from a position of weakness, not strength, especially when they represent large 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.
Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York.
MONTAGNE: And, again, the nationwide strike against General Motors is over. The United Autoworkers says it has reached a tentative contract agreement with the automaker. That deal must still be approved by the rank and file, but the union says its workers are off the picket line and will be on the production line this morning.
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