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Labor Strikes Unlikely to Slow as ‘Hot Strike Summer’ Comes to a Close


High-profile strikes in Hollywood and the threat of one in Detroit have earned this season the name the “summer of strikes,” but the abundance of work disruptions may be a reflection of a sustained uptick in strikes in recent years rather than a unique hot period for union action. 

Key Takeaways

  • With many major strikes ongoing, 2023 has been named the “summer of strikes,” though this year’s strike activity is consistent with an increase in labor stoppages in recent years.
  • Union activity, including strikes, has generally been on the rise since 2009.
  • Public approval of unions is at multi-decade highs but varies widely across the political spectrum.

How Many Unions Are on Strike in 2023?

Between the start of the year and the end of August, there were 252 strikes started across the United States in comparison to 414 in the entirety of 2022, according to the Cornell-ILR Labor Action Tracker, which monitors strike and labor protest activity nationwide. Of these strikes, 16 are considered major work stoppages, meaning they involve at least 1,000 workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) preliminary 2023 data.

Number of Strikes Increasing After All-Time Low in 2009

The number of strikes and public opinion surrounding unions plummeted to a low around the time of the Great Recession with only five major work stoppages in 2009. Labor activity increased in the following years as economic conditions improved, but remained historically low for much of the 2010s.

Union activity picked up in 2018 and 2019 when the pooled annual average number of workers involved in major work stoppages reached a 35-year high according to the Economic Policy Institute.

After a pause at the height of COVID-19, labor activity has returned to those pre-pandemic levels. With 16 major work stoppages taking place only eight months into 2023, the year is on track to match the average strike-per-month rate seen in 2019, which had the highest number of major strikes since 2001.

2023 Strikes in the Shadow of Union Heyday

The number of strikes in 2022 and 2023 is substantial relative to the past decade, but it pales in comparison to the biggest strikes throughout American history, many of which took place in the twentieth century when labor unions were much more active. The number of major work stoppages peaked at 470 in 1952 with an average of approximately 211 strikes each year between 1947 and 1999.

Public Approval of Unions on the Rise

Public opinion surrounding unions is more positive than it’s been in decades. More than two-thirds (67%) of Americans approve of labor unions in 2023, a Gallup survey found. While that number is lower than in 2022 (71%), it is the seventh year in a row in which approval of labor unions has topped 60%, a rate rarely seen since the 1960s. Americans’ approval of unions reached a low point of 48% in 2009. 

Partisan Split on Union Approval

The majority of the American public approves of labor unions though this support varies across the political spectrum. In 2023, 88% of Democrats approve of unions compared with 69% of independents and 47% of Republicans. 

Major Ongoing and Possible Strikes in 2023

The Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) and their approximately 160,000 members have been on strike for more than 100 days, largely bringing Hollywood to a standstill.

The United Auto Workers (UAW) union, which represents approximately 150,000 workers, voted late last month to authorize a strike that could start Sept. 14 if the union can’t reach an agreement with Detroit’s big three: General Motors Co. (GM), Stellantis N.V. (STLA), and Ford Motor Co. (F). The strike could result in a $5.6 billion hit to the economy. 

And last week, the Association of Professional Flight Attendants voted to authorize a strike if American Airlines (AAL) does not meet their demands, potentially grounding one of America’s largest airlines.

Joanna Swanson

Joanna Swanson is Europe correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Brussels covering politics, culture, business, climate change, society, economies and inclusive tech. With specific focus in breaking news, she has covered some of the world's most significant stories.