Mitchell’s Musings 5-16-16: Worker Unrest

15 May 2016 7:44 AM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

Mitchell’s Musings 5-16-16: Worker Unrest

Daniel J.B. Mitchell


When people think about unrest in the 1960s and 1970s, they think about civil rights demonstrations, urban riots, and anti-Vietnam War protests. Of course, all of those things occurred. But often neglected was the worker unrest of that period. In that era, unions were much more prominent – especially in the private sector – than today. So strikes were one way in which worker discontent was expressed.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) still tracks strikes (actually, “work stoppages” since some stoppages can be lockouts rather than worker- or union-initiated strikes). But it now tracks only “major” work stoppages, i.e., those involving 1,000 or more workers. As the chart below shows, major strikes have dwindled down to very small numbers. Whereas in the post-World War II period it was common for 300 or 400 such strikes to occur, in 2015 there were only 12 involving 47,000 workers.
  Number of Major Work Stoppages


At one time, BLS tracked strikes below the 1,000 worker level. If memory serves me, the cutoff was something like 50. But as unions went into decline, BLS paid less attention to them as a priority for statistical programs. “Minor” strikes (those involving fewer than 1,000 workers) were dropped from the series after 1981. So up through 1981, it is possible to see what was going on in smaller units.

Big strikes tended to be concentrated among “key” contracts that set “patterns” for smaller units. And they tended to involve basic contract renegotiation disputes over wages and benefits. Major contracts, sometimes involving tens or hundreds of thousands of workers, would expire and sometimes strikes occurred.  Smaller unit strikes were often over local issues, sometimes “wildcat” (unauthorized) strikes that could involve grievances, local workplace rules or issues, or even intra-union conflicts. Sometimes after the national bargaining was done, local branches of the national union would deal with local concerns.[1] Arguably, there is information about general worker unrest in “minor” disputes that is unrelated to accidents of big contract renegotiation timing.



The charts above on minor strikes suggest that the second half of the 1960s and the 1970s was a period of notable worker unrest.[2] There was a bit of a lull in the early 1970s that seems to be associated with the wage-price controls of that era. With the exception of the Korean War period – in which wage controls seemed to provoke disputes – the period before the mid-1960s was relatively quiescent compared with what followed.

Dramatic union decline begins in the early 1980s with two back-to-back recessions and we know that major strike activity declined, based on BLS data. We don’t know for sure what happened in minor contracts but anecdotally at least, there was also a decline in strike activity there. Fewer workers were unionized so strikes became progressively less useful as a proxy for general worker discontent.

There were political developments that accompanied the rise in strike activity starting in the mid-1970s that have some resonance with the Trump phenomenon we see today. It appears that discontented white male blue collar workers, who back in the day were a major component of union activity, now form a part of the Trump coalition. The late 1960s saw a rise in inflation that eroded real wages – at least temporarily. That development was part of the discontent. But there were other developments in the larger society that also caused anxiety.

The one-time solid Democratic south – under federal orders to desegregate – began its switch to becoming the solid Republican south as part of the “southern strategy.” But there were continuing racial tensions in the north and west, too. Reagan was elected governor in California in part in response to the Watts Riot, a fair housing law (that was repealed by voters), and college student demonstrations at Berkeley and elsewhere. As the 1960s progressed, the Vietnam War became another contentious issue.

Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition of Dixiecrats (southern segregationists), northern liberals, minority voters, and unions began to fray in response. Well before there were “Reagan Democrats,” there were Nixon Democrats, part of the “silent majority” who were concerned about societal trends.[3] The Nixon administration made a conscious effort to appeal to “hard hat” union workers angered at Vietnam protestors. At the same time, the administration put pressure on those same hard hats to open their unions to blacks; it was the Nixon administration that unveiled modern affirmative action, first aimed at urban construction trades under the Philadelphia Plan.[4]

By the mid-1970s, there were the first glimmers of deindustrialization (in part due to a major recession) and early signs of pressures on middle class incomes. Concerns about such matters became more and more prominent. But by the end of the decade, the country moved not to the left but rightwards. Senator Ted Kennedy played a role somewhat analogous to Bernie Sanders in the primaries, tending to undermine the Democratic establishment candidate, incumbent President Jimmy Carter.

In short, the worker discontent that seems reflected in pre-1980s strike data must be seen as part of a larger phenomenon that was also expressed politically in the 1980 election. Nowadays, with the decline in unionization, the strike option is not available to most workers as an outlet for demonstrating unhappiness. We don’t have data on minor strikes and major strikes are no longer a proxy for generalized discontent. But the political option for expression remains and shows itself in voter support for unconventional candidates such as Trump and Sanders. And while it might not be surprising that some of the union workers who remain might be attracted to the latter candidate, Trump also has an appeal to them.[5]

Sanders’ “path to the nomination” seems to be rapidly disappearing, as did Ted Kennedy’s in 1980. So that leaves Hillary Clinton versus Donald Trump in November. Election campaigns in the U.S. are assemblages of various interests and groups behind a candidate. Discontented workers are one such group which is up for grabs and could be critical in determining the outcome.


[1] A handful of nonunion stoppages were included in the data. But these were (are) rare for obvious reasons.

[2] I subtracted major stoppages from total stoppages to obtain the minor residuals.

[4] A review of Philadelphia construction trades practices began under the Johnson administration. The incoming Nixon administration under then-Labor Secretary George Shultz formulated an affirmative action plan featuring the kinds of goals and timetables that came to apply to such efforts.


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