Nonunion Workers Made Up a Surprising Share of Strikers in 2021

New data show that approximately 140,000 workers in the United States took part in work stoppages last year. Though the reality is far from the exaggerated hopes of a “Striketober” strike wave, there has been a noticeable uptick in worker militancy.

A demonstrator holds a sign during the union workers’ strike against Kellogg’s in Battle Creek, Michigan, on Friday, December 17, 2021. (Elaine Cromie / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

In 2021, approximately 140,000 workers in the United States took part in a work stoppage, including 265 strikes and five lockouts — for a total of 3,269,186 strike days. The numbers are compiled in a new report from the Labor Action Tracker, a recent project by Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

While the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) only tracks work stoppages in which 1,000 or more people participate, the new report captures data from smaller work stoppages as well, adding to the picture of workplace action in the pandemic’s second year. As the report details, about half of the work stoppages involved fewer than 100 workers, though the majority of the 140,000 workers took part in stoppages captured by BLS data, i.e., ones involving 1,000 or more workers.

The most surprising finding is that of the 265 work stoppages last year, eighty-seven (amounting to 32.8 percent of the total) were by nonunion workers. It is much harder to organize a stoppage without a formal union’s durable infrastructure, and yet, as the report shows, many workers did so. These strikes tended to be much smaller than those by union workers, and in total accounted for a miniscule 3.4 percent of the 140,000 workers involved in any work stoppages. But despite their small numbers, these stoppages include the likes of several walkouts by Amazon workers at a particularly mobilized distribution center in Chicago, actions significant by dint of the workers’ location in the economy, if not their numbers.

The report also finds that there was a noticeable uptick in worker activity during October and November. While “Striketober” was a moniker that in the hands of some became radically overblown, suggesting a historically significant strike wave was in the making, these numbers show that there was a kernel of truth in the shorthand: strike activity did peak in October and November. Lest we forget, ten thousand John Deere workers struck from October 14 to November 17, and it was on October 4 that (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) IATSE members returned a vote of 99 percent in favor of authorizing a strike that would have encompassed some 60,000 people. Some 50,000 employees at hospital giant Kaiser Permanente came quite close to striking as well, in early November.

This was the basis of the Striketober discussion: the perception of spreading worker militancy, notably concentrated in the private sector. And while Kaiser’s workers did not ultimately strike indefinitely, as it briefly seemed they might — though tens of thousands did partake in a sympathy strike — the 2021 numbers show that around half of the 140,000 workers who struck were in the health care and social assistance sector. Particular note should be taken of the 700-strong nurses’ strike at Saint Vincent Hospital in Massachusetts, which was the year’s longest strike.

Given the context for this activity by health care workers — a pandemic, in which such workers have been pushed to their breaking point by understaffing, particularly at for-profit facilities — this should come as no surprise. Nor should we expect it to change anytime soon. After all, with the hospital lobby fighting safe staffing legislation and the pandemic roaring on, none of workers’ problems have been addressed.

The unionization rate in the United States remains stagnant, at 10.3 percent. The 2021 numbers are tiny compared to the historic strike waves of earlier eras — not only the 1940s, when one in ten workers went on strike, but even 1970, when one in six union members struck. Indeed, they remain below pre-pandemic levels. There have been no game-changing breakthroughs, no long-sought reversal of organized labor’s long decline. Yet there is no quietism either, unlike in the early 2000s. There is frustration among the working class, and there’s also a small but growing socialist left working in and with unions to organize at a moment of particular opportunity, when a tight labor market makes it easier, if still difficult, for workers to stay and fight.