When do strikes win?
October 27, 2019 7:14 AM   Subscribe

What research do we have on when strikes are successful for the striking workers? I have been reading a lot of theory on this, but surely there are studies that can point quantitatively to patterns, or indicate what different factors exist in most winning vs losing strike campaigns?

I am familiar with Jane McAlevey and inspired by recent member-led strikes where super majority participation levels led to big wins (teachers unions being the biggies in the US lately). So I get this theory that we can win better with mass participation/Democratic unionism. But labor studies is a thing and I am guessing there are people looking at the evidence - not just the theory or the recent anecdote.

Pre-the recent surge in progressive labor activity, unions had a very strike-shy approach in the US. In part because of buckling under neoliberal social pressures, but presumably also because they believed strikes are not successful for their members.

What's out there I, a lay person, can access that can provide evidence for and against strikes as a tactic? What trends do we see on strikes that win vs strikes that lose (the strikers end up taking concessions or do not make gains at the bargaining table over proposals the boss offered pre-strike)?

Thanks fellow workers!
posted by latkes to Human Relations (6 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Erica Chenoweth's work is a good place to start.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 9:16 AM on October 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

Two ideas.
One, tweet at Jane McAlevey and ask if she can point you to any research in this area.
Two, take a look at City University of New York's Center for Labor and Urban Studies.
They post talks such as the Unmet Promise of Labor's Resuscitation and the Future of Mass Organizing.
I haven't run across any quantitative research on strikes, and to be honest, I'm not sure how useful such research would be given the complexities of contexts -- what was the larger economy, did they have broad community support, what was the union leadership like at the time, etc etc,
posted by spamandkimchi at 9:29 AM on October 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

I once found, but have since been unable to find again, some quantitative research about how textile workers in Massachusetts would have strikes that were longer and more frequent, because the community would raise funds and contribute in kind to keep striking workers and their families fed. When the textile industry moved to the South, the Southern communities wouldn't keep striking textile workers fed and housed for long enough to make an impact. Strikes would end after shorter periods of time because textile workers in the Southeast would have to take what the bosses offered in order to survive. I wish I had a citation for you.
posted by Former Congressional Representative Lenny Lemming at 9:43 AM on October 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

Two facts that might help:
1. It is a well-established fact that in most industries that union workers get higher pay, better benefits, and better working conditions than their non-union peers in the same industry. So unions have positive results.

2. The only real leverage a union has over management is the threat of withdrawing their labor and damaging the company's profits. It doesn't mean that every contract negotiation ends in a strike but the there has to be a credible threat of a strike occurring in order to have any leverage at all. Both labor and management have incentives to avoid strikes, but if there is never a strike, then eventually management takes it for granted that a strike will never occur and union bargaining becomes less effective.
posted by JackFlash at 1:50 PM on October 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

Quantitative studies about strikes in the US are a bit hard to pin down because the government only keeps statistics on strikes involving over 1000 workers. This means there is no definitive data set of all strike activity.

There are, however, still some good sources of qualitative and quantitative information available. Here are some places to start:
How Strikes Win
How Strikes Lose

We Can’t Win This on Our Own: Unions, Firms, and Mobilization of External Allies in Labor Disputes
Marc Dixon and Andrew W. Martin

Changing to Win? Threat, Resistance, and the Role of Unions in Strikes, 1984–20021
Andrew W. Martin and Marc Dixon

Study using older British data: A Good Time to Stay Out? Strikes and the Business Cycle
Paul J. Devereux Robert A. Hart

posted by cushie at 8:16 PM on October 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

A quick Google Scholar search for actual quantitative data on strikes yielded this article on strikes from the 1980s-2000s: "Changing to Win? Threat, Resistance, and the Role of Unions in Strikes, 1984–2002"

This seems like an excellent reference question for the great folks at Cornell's library on industrial and labor relations. Here is the link to Ask a Librarian.

ILR Review (also from Cornell) is one of the best scholarly sources I am aware of for research on organized labor. You may want to poke around in there for articles on strike effectiveness, and if you hit a paywall, there's always OA button.

Adding on to others' mentions of why some of this is difficult to measure - I think also trying to measure the effects of things like Taft-Hartley which had serious effects on mass strikes, and the post-Reagan Air Traffic Controllers strike disaster has to be considered when studying US strikes.
posted by mostly vowels at 10:31 AM on October 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

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