Record-breaking 459,000 workers strike in 2023: US labor movement hits 23-year high

The nation saw 33 major work stoppages initiated last year, the highest count since the year 2000, which recorded 39 stoppages.

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In 2023, the United States witnessed a remarkable surge in labor movement activities, marking a significant shift in the landscape of worker-led strikes and stoppages. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the nation saw 33 major work stoppages initiated last year, the highest count since the year 2000, which recorded 39 stoppages. This marked increase from the 23 major stoppages in 2022 highlights a growing momentum within the labor movement, indicative of a collective push for improved labor conditions and rights.

The data further reveals that approximately 459,000 workers participated in these major stoppages, a number nearly triple that of the previous year’s 160,000. This significant rise in worker involvement underscores a collective demand for change, echoing the labor movement’s historical calls for fair wages, benefits, and safer working conditions. Notably, the year 2018 had previously seen a high participation rate, with 485,000 workers engaging in strikes, largely driven by the extensive teacher strikes across the country.

The labor movement of 2023 was characterized by a series of high-profile strikes, including those by the Screen Actors Guild and Writers Guild of America, United Auto Workers’ Stand Up Strikes, and healthcare workers from Kaiser Permanente across the Western United States. Additionally, a potential strike by UPS workers, which would have been the largest single-employer strike in U.S. history, was narrowly averted following the company’s concessions on pay and benefits.

However, it’s important to note that the BLS data, due to historical budget cuts and methodological constraints, only accounts for strikes involving more than 1,000 workers. This limitation means that many smaller scale stoppages and strikes are not captured in the federal data. In contrast, a more comprehensive report by the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations documented 470 stoppages in total for 2023, involving 539,000 workers and amounting to 25 million strike days.

Despite the significant uptick in labor activities in 2023, the number of strikes and worker engagements pales in comparison to the decades prior to the 1980s. During that era, it was common to witness hundreds of major stoppages annually, with the record high being 470 in 1952. The decline in labor actions and union membership that began in the 1970s and 1980s can be attributed to the rise of neoliberal economic policies and anti-union measures that severely impacted the labor movement’s momentum and membership.

Yet, there are signs of revitalization within the labor movement, despite the challenging legal and regulatory environment in the U.S. that remains largely non-supportive of unions and collective bargaining. The increase in union membership in 2023, even as the proportion of unionized workers remained at a low 10 percent, indicates a growing interest among workers to organize and advocate for their rights. This interest, however, faces significant hurdles due to decades of policies that have eroded the ability of workers to form unions and engage in collective bargaining effectively.

The resurgence of labor movement activities in 2023, evidenced by the largest number of major work stoppages since the turn of the century, signals a pivotal moment for labor rights in the United States. As workers across various sectors stand in solidarity to demand fair treatment, improved working conditions, and equitable compensation, the momentum appears to be building for a renewed era of labor activism. The path ahead remains fraught with challenges, but the collective actions of 2023 serve as a powerful testament to the enduring spirit and resilience of the labor movement.

“Despite the continued popularity of unions among workers and the public, we have yet to see this momentum translate into substantial increases in the number of workers represented by a union,” summarized the report by the Economic Policy Institute.

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Ruth Milka started as an intern for NationofChange in 2015. Known for her thoughtful and thorough approach, Ruth is committed to shedding light on the intersection of environmental issues and their impact on human communities. Her reporting consistently highlights the urgency of environmental challenges while emphasizing the human stories at the heart of these issues. Ruth’s work is driven by a passion for truth and a dedication to informing the public about critical global matters concerning the environment and human rights.

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