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Strikes up 50% in 2022, with workers exerting leverage in tight labor market

Last year America's picket lines showed more activity as the country emerged from the coronavirus pandemic.

Against the backdrop of hot inflation and a tight market, strike activity spiked by about 50% in 2022, and the number of workers involved jumped 60% year over year, according to a new "Labor Action Tracker" report by Cornell's School of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR) .

About 224,000 total people walked off the job in 424 strikes, up from 279 strikes in 2021. Most of them were demanding better pay and healthcare.

Fast food workers with the "Fight for $15" campaign and Starbucks baristas organized over 100 strikes. In one of the most memorable, a number of Starbucks workers at stores across the country refused to man the espresso machines on "Red Cup Day" — the start of the profitable holiday drink season for the company.

But education workers put the biggest stamp on labor action. About 60% of the workers striking in 2022 were educators, meaning the spotlight continues to be on frontline sectors after healthcare workers drove most of the action 2021, during the height of the pandemic.

Teachers made huge strides last year when 48,000 workers at the University of California secured pay increases as high as 50% and more paid family leave time after a strike that lasted over a month. It was one of the biggest strikes of 2022, and the largest at any college or university since the 90s, according to outside research from Bloomberg.

Before University of California educators walked out, some graduate students were making as little as $25,000 a year, according to Neal Sweeney, president of UAW 5810 — the union that led the strike.

"This was a key year in the timeline of our contracts, but also the inflation crisis was having serious effects in California," Sweeney said. "Housing prices continue to jump up at very high rates, and for us, we reached a breaking point, and things really had to change."

Historically, worker activism rises when the unemployment rates are low, shifting the power dynamic toward workers, according to Harry Katz a professor at ILR.

"Management is sort of being taught a lesson through the strike action," Katz said. "It's being taught how much power workers actually have now given the improvement in their bargaining leverage."

Still, Katz doesn't see this as a revolutionary increase in labor power, just an uptick — and one that looks small next to the yearly strike numbers during the heyday of labor in the 1950s through the early 1970s, when union membership was higher and companies couldn't outsource around the globe. In those years, the number of workers striking was substantially higher, often running above 1 million.

Union membership continued its decades-long decline in the U.S. last year — now encompassing a little over 10% of American workers. In the 1950s, about a third of American workers belonged to unions.

But about a third of the strikes in the last two years have been organized by non-unionized workers, though those strikes tend to be smaller and shorter than those with union heft behind them, according to Johnnie Kallas, the project director of the "Labor Action Tracker."

In 2021, Kallas and his team stepped in to provide the clearest snapshot of the labor movement in America seen since 1981, when budget cuts forced the Labor Department to stop recording strike activity involving fewer than 1,000 workers.

"Documenting work stoppages of only 1,000 or more workers leaves out the vast majority of strike activity," Kallas said.

Kallas' work showed that in 2022, even small groups of workers tried to use their leverage, as companies tried to regain lost ground after the pandemic, and almost half of all work stoppages involved less than 50 people. 

Correction: The headline on this story has been updated to reflect that strikes were up 50% in 2022, not double.

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