Union Membership Decline Doesn’t Explain Drastic Drop in Strikes

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By Jacquie Lee

Christopher Erikson is part of a dying breed: He’s a business manager of a union local that’s on strike.

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 3 has been on strike against Charter Communications-Spectrum in New York and New Jersey since March. Roughly 1,800 workers walked off the job to protest what they call unfair disciplinary actions and a bare-bones benefits package.

Now, eight months and $4 million in strike funds later, the service technicians are still out of work and their unemployment insurance is running out.

“Many workers have retired and many have gone on to other jobs,” Erikson said. “We’re gonna try and sustain these people, but I don’t know if they’re ever going to go back given the position of this company.”

Charter declined to comment for this story.

Strikes Equal Power

Striking is a bedrock of union power, Erikson said, but it can take a toll on workers. He paints a picture of single mothers struggling to feed their children and union members who are forced to sleep in their cars because of paltry subsistence strike wages.

That uncertainty and economic toll could be why strike frequency is slipping. Over the last quarter century, the number of strikes shrank by about 87 percent. That’s roughly six times faster than union membership’s decline in the same time period.

In 1990, about 16.7 million U.S. workers were members of unions. In 2015, that figure was 14.8 million. The number of strikes held in 1990 was 793, and that dropped to 102 in 2015, according to Bloomberg Law labor data.

Thinning union ranks take a considerable toll on union power, but a drop in strikes is equally problematic for the labor movement’s future, Chris Rhomberg said. He’s a labor sociology professor at Fordham University in New York.

“Striking is a real risk for the workers,” Rhomberg told Bloomberg Law. “It’s a last resort, but if you’re talking about defending the principle of collective bargaining itself to make unionization mean anything, then that’s what unions will do.”

Simply put, without strikes, unions have no real power, Rhomberg said.

Shopping Elsewhere Harder to Do

So why has the use of strikes slipped so much? It can’t be explained away by the drop in union membership alone, Rhomberg said.

The cause is either conglomeration or cooperation, depending who you ask.

Corporate conglomeration has played a key role in the decline of strikes, Rhomberg said. With more industries being controlled by fewer companies, large corporations have deeper pockets to wait out strikes, and boycotting their products is a lot harder than it used to be, he said.

In the old days, if a union was striking against a company like General Motors, people could go buy a Ford or Chrysler instead. It’s harder to do that with something like cable TV service because there are fewer options, and the process to change providers is complicated and expensive, Rhomberg said.

“In an industry like this where the company really does have an effective monopoly on consumer demand, the regulatory authority plays a much larger role,” Rhomberg said.

Babson: Japan Inspired Improvements

But some think a decline in strikes is attributable to a more congenial relationship between management and union leaders.

Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, business schools began emphasizing the importance of working with union leaders, Marshall Babson told Bloomberg Law. Babson was a member of the National Labor Relations Board during the Reagan administration and is now a management-side lawyer at Seyfarth Shaw.

“Employers and unions have become smarter in reaching agreements,” Babson said. “People started teaching business managers that one can be more effective by listening more carefully to employees and how they prefer to work.” The U.S. also took a page out of Japan’s playbook, Babson said. Business owners started using a Japanese management style they dubbed “kaizen,” roughly translated as a change for the better. The process emphasizes communication between workers and management, he said.

That style was put to work in 1984 when General Motors and Toyota jointly opened a plant in Oakland, Calif. Thanks to kaizen, the plant saw a reduction in labor grievances, a better product, and a happier workforce, Babson said. “All of that suggests a better business model,” he said.

Health-Care Costs Fuel Disagreements

The number of strikes have decreased significantly, but unions and business owners will continue to clash over contracts, especially as health-care costs continue to climb, Babson said.

“I think that has the potential to be an issue over which employers and unions violently disagree,” Babson said.

Benefits like health care are the biggest sticking points in the IBEW’s strike against Charter Communications.

“They say unless the union drops its demand to continue to participate in the union’s “failing benefits plan” there’s nothing to talk about. And that’s unfortunate,” Erikson from IBEW Local 3 said. That plan includes a pension and good medical coverage, he said.

Charter and Local 3 are poised to meet again on Dec. 4, but Erikson said he isn’t optimistic they’ll come to an agreement.

Jasmine Ye Han contributed graphic

To contact the reporter on this story: Jacquie Lee in Washington at jlee1@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bloomberglaw.com

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