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Worker strikes spiked last year amid worker frustration, surging inflation

For Sean Miller, a warehouse worker at a food distribution company, being called essential during the pandemic "was one of the most terrifying times of my life."

"Everybody was scared, whether it was workers or employers," recalled Miller, who works near Syracuse, New York, for Sysco — a major food distributor for restaurants, schools and nursing homes. 

But two years later, when it came time to negotiate a new contract, Miller said the company had forgotten about its "essential" workforce and wasn't willing to increase pay or curb what the workers called excessive overtime.

"You talk about being essential, a hero, and 'you guys are the best,' and when it comes time to shine — nothing," he said. 

So Miller and 230 of his coworkers, members of Teamsters Local 317, went on strike, declaring nearly three weeks later that the company had met their major demands. 

Miller is one of thousands of workers who went on strike last year — many for the first time. Newly released figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that large work stoppages increased nearly 50% between 2021 and 2022, continuing a trend of renewed labor activism in the wake of the pandemic.

"It does take courage for any worker to go on strike, so the fact that we're seeing an increase, compared to what we saw during the pandemic, is a win," said Margaret Poydock, a policy analyst at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. 

"Throughout 2022, strikes provided workers critical leverage to bargain over fair pay, safe working conditions, and a fair share of the economy," the EPI said in a blog post.

More than half of the strikes last year involved health care workers or educators. And while pay was a major reason for strikes, with last year seeing the hottest inflation in 40 years, it wasn't the only one. Workers also struck for safer working conditions, lower patient-to-nurse ratios and smaller class sizes, Poydock noted.

Over 200,000 U.S. workers went on strike in 2022 02:35

A partial count

The Labor Department's report is far from a complete picture. The report only counts work actions involving over 1,000 people, leaving out most of last year's strikes. A report released this week from the Cornell Institute of Labor Relations paints a fuller picture, showing nearly a quarter of a million workers went on strike last year, an increase from the year before.

Cornell counted 279 strikes last year, up 50% from the year before — a trend in line with the government's findings. Nearly half of those were in small workplaces, with fewer than 50 employees. That includes more than 100 strikes and walkouts at Starbucks stores across the country. 

The uptick in strikes wave coincides with a surge of public approval for labor unions, which are the most popular they've been since 1965, according to Gallup. Still, despite the increase in worker activism last year — including a historic six-week strike among 48,000 University of California workers — strike activity is far below historic levels. 

Could be short-lived

"In the '70s and '60s we saw a million workers striking each year, so the level today is nowhere near pre-pandemic levels," Poydock said.

The surge in worker militancy could be short-lived. The Supreme Court appears poised to curtail workers' right to strike further when  in Glacier Northwest v. Teamsters. The court will issue a decision in the case, in which a company is suing concrete workers over a strike that made some concrete unusable, sometime before June. 

Many observers believe the conservative-dominated court will rule in favor of the employer, opening the door for businesses to sue workers over any strike that causes economic damage to the company.

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