Home / Economy / Articles / As union membership declines, how common are labor strikes in the US?

The United Auto Workers (UAW) in the University of California sent 48,000 workers to the picket lines in November 2022.[1] Post-docs, graduate researchers, and academic student employees across University of California colleges stopped working to advocate for higher wages to keep up with the increasing cost of living in California.

This was one of the largest strikes in recent history. The last work stoppage that involved this scale of employees was the teacher strikes during the Red for Ed movement in North Carolina in 2019. And while there has been a recent uptick in teacher strikes, the number of overall strikes in the US has declined

There have been an average 16 large-scale work stoppages annually over the past decade. In the 1970s, the annual average was 289.

What is the current state of labor unions in the United States?

The decline in work stoppages comes as the number and proportion of union workers has fallen since the 1980s. In 1983, there were 17.7 million such workers, about 20% of employees. There were 14.3 million such workers in 2022, representing 10% of employees.

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How frequent are strikes by labor unions?

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The number of workers involved in work stoppages has fallen in recent years as well. In 2022, a total of 120,600 employees were in work stoppages. That’s down 85% from 795,000 in 1980, and down 95% from the nearly 2.5 million employees in stoppages in 1970.

Line chart of the number of employees involved in work stoppages, 1970-2022. There is a steep decline from the 70s to around 2000 (2.5 million to around  72K). There is a labelled spike at 2018-2019 that refers to teacher strikes where employees involved spiked to around 450K.

Many of the recent large work stoppages have involved public workers, especially teachers. The largest such strike occurred in May 2018, when 123,000 educators in North Carolina walked off the job for a day. The largest private company work stoppage in the past decade occurred in the fall of 2019, when 46,000 union workers at General Motors went on strike.

Where does this data come from?

This data comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics work stoppage database. The agency notes that the data is “gathered from public news sources, such as newspapers and the Internet.” The data does not distinguish between strikes, which are usually initiated by workers, and lock-outs, which are typically initiated by management.

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The UAW includes many academic workers in addition to auto workers.