Labor peace has broken out across the country, and all it took was the nastiest recession since the end of World War II to spawn it.
Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers show major work stoppages — defined as those when 1,000 workers or more go on strike or are locked out — dropped 95 percent this year compared with last year and are at their lowest level since the government began keeping a tally in the 1940s.
“It is the economy. Right now, people are just desperately holding onto their jobs,” said Charles B. Craver, a labor law professor at George Washington University.
Labor unions have been in decline for decades as a percentage of the work force and have been losing power over that time, but they had hoped an Obama presidency could help them recover lost ground. For now, though, it appears that test will have to wait until after the economy rebounds and employers and employees are ready to start sparring again.
“I think you can say that everybody’s anxious to keep labor peace right now with the economy being where it is and employment where it is,” said Gordon Pavy, the AFL-CIO’s director of collective bargaining.
Previous recessions saw drops in work stoppages, but nothing like the complete halt of this current recession.
From November 2008 through May, BLS didn’t record a single major work stoppage, and since May, there have been just three. Altogether, just 73,500 workdays have been lost to major stoppages through September. In the first nine months of 2008, there had been 14 major strikes or lockouts, costing 1.4 million workdays.
Mr. Pavy said not to draw long-term conclusions about the health of collective bargaining from these numbers. He said stoppages go in cycles and part of the explanation for the current drop is that there aren’t many big contracts up this year.
He also said most of the big stoppages usually occur in manufacturing, such as the automobile industry. But workers at General Motors Co. and Chrysler Group LLC agreed to no-strike clauses through 2015 as part of the government bailout.
Another complication is that unions are doing best among government workers at the federal, state and local levels, where 36.8 percent are unionized, according to BLS statistics for 2008. In the private sector, just 7.6 percent are. Indeed, unions in 2008 experienced a rare overall membership uptick, primarily because of an increase in public-sector unionization.
However, many government employees, such as police and firefighters, are prevented from striking because they are deemed essential public safety employees.
Patrick Semmens, legal information director for the National Right to Work Foundation, which defends workers’ freedom not to join unions, said unions’ tactics have changed as well. He said members want to shy away from confrontational stoppages, and the organizers have listened.
As a result, picket lines more often are for unions trying to get new businesses organized and add new members, rather than lines of workers on strike against an employer.
“There’s basically zero incentive for unions maybe to call these types of strikes over wages and things like that. That just means they’re not going to collect dues if the workers go out on strike, versus the way to keep the ATM paying is workers keep working,” Mr. Semmens said.
Mr. Craver also sees a broader trend in underlying balances of power. The numbers bear it out: In the 1970s, more than 250 million workdays were lost to work stoppages. That dropped to less than 120 million work days in the 1980s, about 46 million in the 1990s, and to about 37 million nearing the end of this decade.
“What it really demonstrates to me is the tremendous shift in power from what used to be the power unions had, and the workers, to the power of the employer,” Mr. Craver said.
He said that balance-of-power debate is spilling into Congress in the fight over the Employee Free Choice Act, a bill unions have deemed their top priority because it would make it easier for unions to form.
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