For First Time In Years, Labor Resistance Is on the Rise in America

Yves here. The problem is this increase in labor action is from such a low base that I’m not sure it is meaningful. But this is at least worth watching.

By Sam Knight, whose work has appeared in Truthout, Washington Monthly, Salon, Mondoweiss, Alternet, In These Times, The Reykjavik Grapevine and The Nation. In 2012, he worked as a producer for The Alyona Show on RT. He has written extensively about political movements that emerged in Iceland after the 2008 financial collapse, and is currently working on a book about the subject. Originally published at the District Sentinel

Industrial unrest in the United States was more frequent and widespread last year, according to annual data released Wednesday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

There were twelve “major work stoppages” measured by BLS, up from eleven the year before. The disputes involved about 47,000 workers—a year-over-year increase of 13,000.

It was the first year since 2011 that saw the number of major work stoppages increased in the US, and the first year since 2012 to see the number of workers involved in industrial disputes go up.

The number of days lost to disagreements between management and unionized labor was also up by almost 400 percent. In 2015, 740,000 workdays were lost to strikes or lockouts–up from 200,000 in 2014.

The increase in idle days can be attributed mostly to two disputes involving the United Steelworkers Union (USW). A four-month strike by USW against Shell Oil saw all days lost to contract fights increase by 322,100. A lockout involving USW and the Pittsburgh-based steel manufacturer Allegheny Technologies accounted for 206,800 days idle. It started in August and is still ongoing.

BLS defines major work stoppages as “both worker-initiated strikes and employer-initiated lockouts that involve 1,000 workers or more.” They need to last at least one shift to be counted by the Labor Department statistical arm.

Since BLS started collecting the data in 1947, the frequency and size of major work stoppages peaked in 1952, when 2.7 million workers participated in 470 industrial disputes. The United States population then was less than half of what it was in 2015.

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    1. Clive

      I know it’s the HuffPost but even so, the anger in the comments is stinging. And the response from United Technologes / Carrier is stunningly out of touch. It could scarcely have been worse if they’d said “let them eat cake”.

      1. willf

        The whole “This is strictly a business decision” line is adorable.

        That’s what they always say in mobster movies right before they shoot a guy.

  1. Amateur Socialist

    It’s popping out in white collar workplaces too. I was at a large scale meeting between engineers and executives a few months ago – the usual rah rah we’re winning business quarterly “update” from senior management.

    Then when the Q&A session started one engineer had the temerity to ask about the corporate decision to continue buying our own stock back over investing in the business we are in. It had been going on for some years alongside constant layoffs especially of senior people.

    I was shocked to watch the entire room (about 400 engineers and managers) erupt in applause and yelling at the question. The executive was obviously completely unprepared for such a blatant challenge to boardroom authority. He managed to slink off the stage after a genuinely pitiful mouthing of “you wouldn’t understand that investment is being done to protect our long term growth” etc.

    It’s probably not necessary to disclose that the stock has tanked over 35% since his pitiful defense of the useless manipulation of stock price. And the layoffs and offshoring of engineering work have only continued.

      1. bwilli123

        from the linked article above.
        “The United States government spends more on social welfare programs per capita than most European countries once we include both traditional public spending and tax subsidies. But contrary to European welfare states, benefits are not concentrated on the poor in the U.S.

        “In essence, there are two American welfare states. A public one built primarily by Democrats that serves the elderly and the poor and a private one built by both parties but expanded by Republicans that provides welfare to the wealthy.”

    1. mad as hell.

      You just have to wonder. What is going to be the final straw? The event or the series of events that lead up to the American people coming to grips and changing the policies of the last 40 years. Something has to give as more and more people are seeing a rigged and corrupt system rule the day!

      1. Clive

        I wonder if it might be like the fall of the communist system (well, they called it that) in the Soviet Union. There wasn’t any storming of no Bastille or million-man marches.

        Instead, the people simply withdrew, passively, their cooperation. It wasn’t even peaceful protest. There was little or no protesting. Everyone smiled — or a least trudged — their way through whatever is was they were supposed to be doing, but either didn’t do it or did the minimum. I suspect there was a lot of subtle, low level, sabotage. I on occasions ponder to myself if the “problem of low productivity” which is oft-reported might be aligned to that. Of course, by its very nature, that is difficult to evidence one way or the other.

        1. hemeantwell

          Unfortunately, when communism fell in the SU elite withdrawal of cooperation took the form of dismantling a state-guided economic system and making off with the most easily sold portions. In whatever kind of capitalism we live under here, that kind of fall would look like what Kalecki ridiculed, economy crashing by unconfident elites to maintain economic power.

          (I was unsure about “unconfident” and searched it. The usage graph is interesting, showing a steady upward rise since its obscurity in the 19th century. Hmm.)

        2. DJG

          Clive: As the Central and Eastern European joke went, “They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work.” I’m seeing this sort of hollowing out of work and hollowing out of daily necessary transactions all over.

          1. templar555510

            Of course . Only in the American case it’s called ‘ poverty in the midst of plenty ‘ . There’s plenty of stuff on the shelves, but too few people can afford to buy it. The Soviet people ( or enough of them ) finally woke up to the reality of their situation and it’s just possible enough Americans will do also soon………..and then what ? Collapse ?

      2. Amateur Socialist

        I was genuinely shocked at the question, this is a Fortune 500(tm) Corporation with a well deserved reputation for being extremely conservative. I’m paraphrasing but it was along the lines of:
        “We have lost many senior people to other companies, some via attrition, some via layoffs. We are all challenged by lack of equipment and basic investment in tools. Why can’t we take some of the money we are investing in stock buybacks and put it back in our core businesses to grow them?”

        Virtually everyone in the room applauded and cheered. I did too once I saw all the managers doing the same. The koolaid is apparently not so tasty anymore…

        1. cnchal

          The koolaid is apparently not so tasty anymore…


          Interesting that in your question is the root of the problem.

          “We have lost many senior people to other companies, some via attrition, some via layoffs. We are all challenged by lack of equipment and basic investment in tools. Why can’t we take some of the money we are investing in stock buybacks and put it back in our core businesses to grow them?”

          That fulcrum of wealth creation is too small and weak to lever up quadrillions in Fed conjured debt, and the bought politicians, narcissist lawyers almost to a person, think wealth creation comes from billing their client $8 per second.

          They really don’t care if these big companies move production to Mexico or China. Ford just announced a massive increase in capacity in Mexico.

          A few months ago, a headline in the Globe and Mail financial section brayed and boasted about how clever the automakers were. Mexican workers put out first world quality while getting paid third world wages.

          Now, try selling something to a Mexican.

          1. craazyboy

            They tell Mexican labor(and gubmint) that they need to be competitive with China!

            So we cleverly ended up with a third world country on our southern border.

            1. sierra7

              “American Labor must be crushed to a global level playing field for US business to compete on the world markets”
              Incoming Reagan admin advisors.
              The rest is history; the future is pre-ordained.

          2. Amateur Socialist

            Well everybody seemed fine with the stock buybacks while the price was rising… Then stable… But now that the investors have been running for the exits it’s obvious how much they were scammed.

            Not me, I dumped my stock almost a decade go when they really started putting the thumb to the scale.

    2. Left in Wisconsin

      The engineers (and IT people) are key. The unions were knee-capped in the 40s and 50s when the gubmint decided engineers and foremen shouldn’t be allowed in unions, taking away the ability of both to really have much say in how the businesses were run – the unions because they didn’t have the expertise, the engineers because they didn’t have the union behind them.

      1. Amateur Socialist

        Yeah, unfortunately this all took place right around the same time the CWA abandoned their decade plus attempt to organize here. An effort I supported financially but quietly. To my somewhat muted chagrin.

        But hey at least the CWA endorsed Bernie so I felt like my money wasn’t totally wasted. They were one of the few national unions to do so afaik.

  2. Woodrow

    Meanwhile, unions, what’s left of them in the private sector anyways, continue to donate to the very same politicians that have sold them and The American People out. Going as far back as NAFTA, it was Democrats and Republicans holding hands as the voted to send millions of jobs from our shores, especially in manufacturing, and very soon, thanks to technology, agriculture will soon follow.

  3. DakotabornKansan

    “The institutions – corporate, government, union – that brokered the self-destructive contrivance called neoliberalism are obsolete and need to be replaced.” – Gregg Shotwell, Live Bait and Ammo in Autoworkers Under the Gun: A Shop-Floor View of the End of the American Dream

    According to Michels’ Iron Law of Oligarchy, any large-scale organization which is openly committed to democratic principles must by their very nature unravel into large bureaucracies ruled by the few.

    There is a chasm which separates the working class from union officials, neoliberals, and the Vichy Left.

    “More generally, many unions, not the just the UAW, have lost their bearings. Union leaders don’t have a world view independent of the corporations they serve. The institution of labor is infected with opportunists who claim we can cure the afflictions of capitalism with a heavier dose of capitalism. As a result, union leaders advocate that we work harder for less and help the companies eliminate jobs. Competition between workers and cooperation with bosses is an anti-union policy, but it makes perfect sense to union leaders who have more in common with bosses than workers.” – Gregg Shotwell

    As Shotwell wrote in his blog, “Americans are controlled by fear. We react like dogs barking furiously to defend the patch of dirt we’re chained to. The kettle of vultures that advocate a bunker mentality raze, ridicule, and undermine the only genuine security humans have ever known — community, fellowship, solidarity.”

    1. Nathanael

      I guess Social Security Administration avoided the fate of most bureaucracies by having very, very few employees — they transfer a lot of money, but they have a miniscule bureaucracy. Which prevents the “iron law of oligarchy” from operating.

    1. polecat

      Everyone needs to consider present and future energy/resource constraints with regard to labor rights/middle-class formation as possible only because circumstances of geology & geopolitics of the times (late19th to mid 20th centuries). When whole nations, and/or nation blocks, are in the beginnings of squaring off for the remains, then the idea of a big labor resurgence/clout seems, to my way of thinking, like punching at ghosts! Against resource and energy limits, groups of humans, both Labor & Plutocrat alike, will continue to utilize greed and averice to try to maintain their position. while everyone else is left to sink in the mud!

      1. polecat

        The reduction of large, complex, unwieldy continent sized nations will, I think, become the trend in time, for the reasons stated above……. not enough material resource glue, as it were !!

      2. vegeholic

        This is an unfair line of reasoning. You are playing five dimensional chess when the clear consensus is that only one dimensional arguments are acceptable. Please go and stand in the corner.

          1. clinical wasteman

            Apologies if I simply have it wrong, but as I read it, Vegeholic’s comment was actually applauding Polecat’s in a roundabout way.
            But unless I’ve also misread the two comments applauded, I must admit I do disagree in a fairly fundamental way.
            Brief attempt at specifying: unless by ‘labor’ you only mean the biggest established unions in the richest countries, I don’t quite understand who ‘everyone else’ (i.e. those left to sink in the mud) is, or rather, in what sense we are not all ‘labor’. Another definition of labor would be: the many billion people in the world who are forced to work in the hope of surviving, or barely survive in the absence of a wage. In that sense, the interests of ‘labor’ surely do matter with regard to resource-depletion disaster: consider what global ‘adjustment’ to the physical destruction of the planet will look like if attempted while financial claims, ‘fair’ return on capital and property rights in general remain paramount. (Actually perhaps there’s no need to imagine that, it may already be underway.) Ecological adjustment on that basis would mean mandatory and ruthlessly enforced ‘sinking in the mud’ to one degree or another for most of the world’s population, and one word for that part of the population is ‘labor’. Unless that sort of ‘labor’ somehow prevails politically and at global level (and personally I’m about as pessimistic about that as anyone could be), any kind of serious response to energy/resource catastrophe will either a) not happen or b) inflict the uttermost (extra) misery on the poorer 9/10ths of the world. (Or maybe some ingenious combination of both.) Which is why I’m not thrilled either about the glibness in statements like the one elsewhere in this thread (I think) to the effect of “we just have to eat pain for 30 years”. It’s not ‘special interest pleading’ to demand to know: which “we”, what sort of pain, and who is supposed to decide.
            But I know you said no such thing, Polecat, so I’m sorry for grafting that last part onto a reply to you.
            Way too long a reply already, but one more thing, perhaps to be taken up again later: regarding the second comment about the future breakup of continent-size nations/blocs, that sounds less than desirable for reasons related to those above: given the global scale of the energy/resource/ecological problem, trying to address it through the national policies of competing states seems hopeless in general and only likely to be made worse by creating more microstates: just more petty prizefighters squaring off when the stakes will be poisoned for everyone if anyone ‘wins’.

  4. Ulysses

    One real point of vulnerability for the transnational kleptocrats is the long supply-chain system, particularly now that so much production has been outsourced to low-wage regions of the world.

    Teamsters and Longshoremen have recently been showing a willingness to push back here in the U.S., on both coasts:

    I mean what’s the point of throwing lavish parties in the Hamptons if you can’t find a decent bottle of champers?

    1. clinical wasteman

      Many thanks for these, Ulysses.
      Liverpool-based researcher Brian Ashton has spent the last decade or so producing crucial stuff about supply/logistics chains as class faultline. See eg.:
      (The ‘Internet of Things’ explained in 2006, and without reference to ‘smart’ refrigerators.)

      And for readers of German willing to negotiate a sprawling site and an emphatic (though heretical) Marxist/World Systems standpoint, this question is also a longstanding concern of Wildcat magazine, eg.:

  5. craazyboy

    As 2016 progresses, I’m sure we’ll see a debate where Hillary! will press her strengths and continue attempts at assimilating Bernie’s platform.

    “The US economy is into labor – and business leadership is becoming more and more supportive of maternity leave, even for male “stay at home” dads. Wall Street is clearly supportive, and as I’ve said a couple times before, I am the one with the experience, knowledge and vision to have made and continue to make this happen. President Obama helped too, and let’s not forget Obamacare. “

  6. sierra7

    The International Unions’ leaderships have to make a 180 deg turnaround forced by the rank and file before any organized (or “unorganized”) labor progress can be made.
    And, even then “progress” will be measured by those labor agreements or changes that might recoup the recent past “take-aways”.
    All of this will be in the face of globalization.
    Not impossible, but very difficult.
    And, yes there is rebellion in the ranks of the many who have been betrayed, both by their leaderships and the politicians that have promised to help.
    Ultimately, “street justice” may be the only way to turn around the mess most global organized (and unorganized) labor finds themselves in.

    1. Left in Wisconsin

      All of this will be in the face of globalization.
      Not impossible, but very difficult.

      For people working in exportable jobs, large-scale labor resistance is impossible unless government steps in on their side. Some will but for most there is just too much to lose.

      That’s why it’s important to distinguish where the unrest is coming from, and the context. Beverly Silver awhile back made a good distinction between Marx-ian labor unrest, coming from workers with labor market leverage in growing sectors of the economy, and Polanyi-an labor unrest, coming from workers without market leverage who simply reach the limits of what they are willing to put up with.

      It isn’t the absolute amount of unrest that matters, and Yves rightly points out the level is so low now that a slight uptick doesn’t really represent much of a movement. It’s who is striking and can their strikes result in improved outcomes.

  7. financial matters

    Adam Branch and Zachariah Mampilly in writing about Africa, Africa Uprising: Popular Protest and Political Change (2015) talk about a group they call political society and distinguish it from labor proper.

    They use the term ‘political society’ to refer to an urban underclass comprised largely of unemployed, underemployed and informal workers often subject to government neglect and/or government violence.

    This seems to be similar to a group in the US composed of the homeless, unemployed, underemployed, informal workers, contract workers etc.

    Their goals are for livelihoods and residence to be guaranteed, for employment to be available, and for government violence to end. This group would also seem to include the $2/day group.

    Single payer, a basic BIG, and affordable housing and education would go a long way. The next step up would be a job guarantee at a living wage. (Nobody who works a 40 hour week should live in poverty.)

    1. akaPaul LaFargue

      Sounds like Branch & Mampilly are referring to the precariat as described by Guy Standing as a class-in-formation.

  8. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

    I think it’s on the rise in China as well.

    Without it, without global solidarity, it’s just more arbitrage opportunities for capital.

    1. polecat

      ” It’s who is striking and can their strikes result in THEIR OWN inproved outcome”………. Too…..many…..competing……interests

        1. polecat

          The Pie is only so big…….thus the pieces must be cut progressively smaller and smaller for a growing population…. of humans (yeast), and good luck with progress, and technology (Big renewbieables, fuuuuusion, nuk-le-ar) as it is currently thought of, by most of the plebes, or their betters. Eventually, smaller populations, living in much larger world, will become the norm, as it it was in the past before we squandered fossil sunlight! Time is not on our side, and I’m afraid we’ll squander that too!

  9. Couperin

    I have to wonder how this is going to translate into action–if at all–in the forthcoming elections.

    Consider: back in 2014, in an admittedly much more locally controlled environment, labor in Lorain County, Ohio (about 40 minutes away from us) were incensed when a Democrat mayor they had campaigned for tossed out a project labor agreement, and was later photographed riding in a truck bringing scabs in to break a garbage collectors’ strike. Local labor leaders put up a pair of independent labor candidates. They were disciplined by the local Democratic leadership, and stripped of some positions; and the local Dems also spent an unusually large amount for these races. Yet labor made their point and won both elections. Last I heard from friends living in the county, relations between the party and labor haven’t really improved beneath the surface since.

    But Lorain Country is heavily union (unusually so, especially for conservative Ohio), and union networking functions as a medium equal to the financial clout the major parties can summon for local elections. It’s not representative, in other words, of anything on a larger scale, where the party, state and national machines have tremendous resources. And where labor leaders have shown a repeated willingness to roll over and beg just not to be crushed by Democratic leaders who no longer consider labor a sufficiently powerful lobby to value. When 15 labor unions supported union-busting, hippie-punching Rahm Emanuel’s 2015 mayoral bid, one has to ask: is Lorain County a possibility anywhere else? Is it even in the same country as Chicago, and the many other union-busting cities, states, etc?

    But where will all that energy go this election year? Will it actually break either of the GOP or Dem machines and succeed in getting through a populist nominee? Does it have the organization to do so? Or will it just generate inchoate anger, like the Carrier layoffs, where people scream on Facebook and YouTube, post a remark, then go away thinking a good job has been done? What will it take to demonstrate sufficient power to force attention from the political elite, overturning damage done by countless anti-union laws, and swelling union ranks once more?

  10. Nathanael

    This is meaningful, but it’s also “early days” — it’s mostly just an indicator of a trendline. I wouldn’t expect it to have direct effect for years.

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