Why the striking workers at General Motors are so extraordinary

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More than 49,000 members of United Auto Workers are now on strike, walking off General Motors work floors in an effort to secure what they say are fair wages, affordable healthcare and job security.

Part of what made the early Monday strike noteworthy is that it happened at all. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has long been counting work stoppages, which include strikes and lock outs. In 1969, there were 412 work stoppages involving at least 1,000 workers, the agency said. In 2018, there were just 20 — and that was a jump from 7 stoppages the year before.

In fact, this is the United Auto Workers’ first national strike since a two-day walk out in 2007. There were 21 work stoppages that year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics noted.

The new UAW strike wasn’t a light decision, according to the union’s vice president, Terry Dittes. “We clearly understand the hardship that it may cause,” he said. “We are standing up for fair wages, we are standing up for affordable quality health care, we are standing up for our share of the profits,” he told the Associated Press.

GM said on its website it was disappointed with the strike. “We presented a fair offer to the UAW leadership that addresses wages, benefits, investments and job security in substantive ways and builds toward our future.” More talks were slated for Monday.

What’s behind the fall in stoppages and strikes?

“It’s become a lot more dangerous to strike in the last 30 years,” said Lawrence Mishel, a labor-market economist at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. The decline in labor-union membership has also been a “major factor,” he said. In 2018, 10.5% of workers were in unions, down from 20.1% in 1983, the first year for which comparable data was available.

Union membership rates could be dropping further. Among U.S. adults employed either full or part-time, 10% were union members as of August 2019, according to Gallup.

“Strikes as protest, rather than the long-term shutting down of an employer will become much more prominent,” Mishel said, citing Google GOOG, -0.67% workers walking off the job for a couple hours in November 2018 to challenge the tech giant’s handling of sexual harassment allegations. Other countries have more clout: Over 90% of workers in Ireland are members of a labor union.

Don’t Miss: Want to stage a protest like Google workers? Read this first

The UAW had almost 396,000 members in 2018, The Detroit News said, reporting on an annual union Labor Department filing. A union spokesman told the newspaper that 2018 monthly membership averaged 405,000. The union had more than 701,000 members in 2002, the News reported.

U.S. companies have outsourced their manufacturing overseas, so there are fewer factory workers to go on strike. As the 2016 presidential election showed, many of these workers are either underemployed or jobless. The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 forbid unions from contributing to political campaigns and forbids “union shops” unless a majority of employees have voted in favor of them.

Mishel said a closely-watched 1981 air-traffic controller strike set a new tone for companies. That year, 11,345 unionized air-traffic controllers walked off their government jobs and President Ronald Reagan ended up firing most of them. “That was sort of a signal to management this was now acceptable practice,” said Mishel. “It was not considered acceptable before.”

Dissatisfaction about wage growth and working conditions have increasingly turned many workplaces into “tinderboxes,” Mishel said. “If a fire can be lit, it’s going to take off around the country,” he said. Real average hourly earnings increased 1.3% on a seasonally adjusted basis from between March 2018 and March 2019, and fell by 0.1% on the month in March.

For example, thousands of Uber UBER, +3.55%   and Lyft LYFT, +3.67%   drivers walked off the jobs in May for several hours to protest pay and working conditions. Los Angeles, Calif. drivers turned off their apps for 24 hours.

See also: Here’s how much more Lyft and Uber rides could cost under California’s gig-worker law

The two biggest work stoppages of 2019 so far have been teacher strikes in Arizona and Oklahoma, according to the BLS. Both ended with worker raises.

GM GM, -4.25%   shares sank 3% in premarket trading Monday on the strike news, but the stock is up almost 13% since the start of the year. That compares to a nearly 20% gain for the S&P 500 Index SPX, -0.31%  and a 16% increase for the Dow Jones Industrial Average DJIA, +0.00%  over the same period.

This story was updated on Sept. 16, 2019.

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