While extensive high-profile strike activity was heavily reported throughout 2023, it was – striking– to analyze the hard data regarding 2023 strike activity in Bloomberg’s annual report that was just released.  The report details recent work stoppages, explores how 2023 strike activity statistics fit into historical patterns and trends, and looks at possible future strike activity.  A close review of recent strike activity could help portend what we can continue to expect in 2024 – and beyond.   

The “First Contract” Walkout Trend Continues

The report provides statistical support to a trend that many employers are keenly aware of – workers are not waiting to be covered by a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) before engaging in strikes.  Prior to this recent wave of “first contract” strikes, unions typically engaged in a work stoppage after their CBA expired, and the parties could not reach agreement on a successor contract.  Recently, many strikes have begun much earlier.

Continuing a trend that started in 2022, strikes before the parties have reached a first contract accounted for over 100 out of the 347 work stoppages in 2023.  This is a staggering number when compared to only 21 total strikes before a first contract in 2020 and 2021 combined.  Significantly, roughly 20% of the strikes before a first contract were by employees still in the process of organizing a union. 

The numbers speak both to labor’s increased sense of strength in the workplace, and potentially to new populations of employees that have recently organized, including graduate students and postdoctoral scholars at many employees and universities. 

Strikes Increase; Management Lockouts Significantly Decrease

Unions called 345 strikes in 2023 – the highest number in more than 20 years, when there was 367 strikes in 2002.  This also marks the third year in a row where the number of strikes increased, the first time since at least 1990 that the number of strikes increased for three years in a row. 

While strikes increased, management lockouts significantly decreased.  Of the 347 work stoppages in 2023, only two were lockouts initiated by management.  This is far below prior years on average, where approximately 3% – 5% of work stoppages were management lockouts.

Strikes Affected More Employees, But Lasted For Less Time

Bloomberg engages in an analysis to determine the number of workers “idled” by a strike.  According to the report, as compared to prior years, the number of workers who engaged in strikes in 2023 (530,287) was orders of magnitude greater than prior years:

  • 2022: More than twice as many strikers in 2023 as compared to 2022;
  • 2021: More than four times as many strikers in 2023 as compared to 2021, and;
  • 2020: More than ten times as many strikers in 2020 as compared to 2020.

In fact, more workers were idled by a strike in 2023 than all three prior years combined, and 2023 represented the second highest number of workers idled by strikes in any year strikes since at least 1990. 

However, while more workers were idled by strikes in 2023, strikes were resolved faster than in prior years. Bloomberg reported that two-thirds of strikes were resolved within one week, and 75% were resolved within two weeks.  This represents much shorter strikes than in prior decades.  For example, in the early 2000s, less than 40% were resolved within a week.

Strikes Differ By Industry, State and Union

Not all industries, states and unions are the same in terms of strike activity:

  • By Industry:  The services industry– which includes education and healthcare institutions – was affected by the most strikes (126) in 2023, followed by retail & wholesale trade (105), manufacturing (54) and transportation, communication & utilities (45).  Traditionally, manufacturing represented a large proportion of all strikes – in the 1990s more than half of all strikes were in manufacturing.  By contrast, in 2023, it represented only 13% of all strikes.
  • By State: Not surprisingly, California led the way in strikes with 71, followed by New York (48) and Illinois (27). Perhaps unexpectedly, Oregon (19) and Washington (18) were ranked fourth and fifth in terms of strike activity, even though they have a comparatively smaller workforce. Large southern states—Texas, Georgia, and Florida— saw low strike activity, and twelve states did not record a single strike in 2023.
  • By Union: The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) was the most prolific union to lead its members on strike in 2023 – 99 strikes included 181,754 SEIU workers.  However, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, ran the strikes with the largest average number of striking employees – averaging 2,948 workers per strike.  The United Auto Workers also had a large average strike size – averaging 2,646 workers per strike. 

Takeaways

The Bloomberg report illustrates what anecdotally employers know to be true – unions and their members no longer will give employers a honeymoon period to reach a first contract and are more willing now than ever to engage in a strike to support their bargaining position.  This union tool likely will continue to be exercised, as the rate of unionization increases due to a confluence of factors, including recent activity by the NLRB making it easier to unionize the workforce. 

Employers should be aware of these trends as they hear of unionization at their plants or engage with unions in negotiations for a first – or successor – collective bargaining agreement.  As always, we will continue to update you on these developments.

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Photo of Joshua Fox Joshua Fox

Joshua S. Fox is a senior counsel in the Labor & Employment Law Department and a member of the Sports, Labor-Management Relations, Class and Collective Actions and Wage and Hour Groups.

As a member of the Sports Law Group, Josh has represented several…

Joshua S. Fox is a senior counsel in the Labor & Employment Law Department and a member of the Sports, Labor-Management Relations, Class and Collective Actions and Wage and Hour Groups.

As a member of the Sports Law Group, Josh has represented several Major League Baseball Clubs in all aspects of the salary arbitration process, including the Miami Marlins, Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers, Kansas City Royals, San Francisco Giants, Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays. In particular, Josh successfully represented the Miami Marlins in their case against All-Star Catcher J.T. Realmuto, which was a significant club victory in salary arbitration. Josh also represents Major League Baseball and its clubs in ongoing litigation brought by current and former minor league players who allege minimum wage and overtime violations. Josh participated on the team that successfully defended Major League Baseball in a wage-and-hour lawsuit brought by a former volunteer for the 2013 All-Star FanFest, who alleged minimum wage violations under federal and state law. The lawsuit was dismissed by the federal district court, and was affirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

Josh also has extensive experience representing professional sports leagues and teams in grievance arbitration proceedings, including playing a vital role in all aspects of the grievance challenging the suspension for use of performance-enhancing drugs of then-New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez. Josh also has counseled NHL Clubs and served on the trial teams for grievances alleging violations of the collective bargaining agreement, including cases involving use of performance-enhancing substances, domestic violence issues, and supplementary discipline for on-ice conduct. He has played a key role in representing professional sports leagues in all aspects of their collective bargaining negotiations with players and officials, including the Major League Baseball, National Hockey League, the National Football League, Major League Soccer, the Professional Referee Organization, and the National Basketball Association,.

In addition, Josh has extensive experience representing clients in the performing arts industry, including the New York City Ballet, New York City Opera, Big Apple Circus, among many others, in collective bargaining negotiations with performers and musicians, the administration of their collective bargaining agreements, and in grievance arbitrations.

Josh also represents a diverse range of clients, including real estate developers and contractors, pipe line contractors, hospitals, hotels, manufacturers and public employers, in collective bargaining, counseling on general employment matters and proceedings before the National Labor Relations Board, New York State Public Employment Relations Board and arbitrators.

Josh has also recently served as an adjunct professor at Cornell University’s School of Industrial Labor Relations for the past two years, teaching a course regarding Major League Baseball salary arbitration.

Prior to joining Proskauer, Josh worked for a year and a half at the National Hockey League, where he was involved in all labor and employment matters, including preparations for collective bargaining, grievance arbitration, contract drafting and reviewing and employment counseling. Josh also interned in the labor relations department of Major League Baseball and at Region 2 of the National Labor Relations Board. He was a member of the Brooklyn Law Review and the Appellate Moot Court Honor Society and served as president of the Brooklyn Entertainment and Sports Law Society.

Photo of Yonatan Grossman-Boder Yonatan Grossman-Boder

Yonatan (Yoni) Grossman-Boder is an associate in the Labor & Employment Law Department. Yoni assists clients in a wide range of labor and employment law matters, including litigations, administrative proceedings, arbitrations, internal investigations, labor-management relations and claims of employment discrimination, harassment, retaliation, and…

Yonatan (Yoni) Grossman-Boder is an associate in the Labor & Employment Law Department. Yoni assists clients in a wide range of labor and employment law matters, including litigations, administrative proceedings, arbitrations, internal investigations, labor-management relations and claims of employment discrimination, harassment, retaliation, and wrongful termination. He frequently represents clients across a variety of industries and sectors, including educational institutions, financial services, media and entertainment companies, health services and professional services.

Yoni clerked for the Honorable Richard M. Gergel of the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina.  While attending Duke University School of Law, Yoni served as the publication and lead articles editor of Law and Contemporary Problems.

Prior to coming to Proskauer, Yoni served as a legal intern at the New York Human Resources Administration Employment Law Unit. As a legal intern, he worked on a variety of employment matters, including employment discrimination investigations and litigation. While a summer associate at Proskauer, Yoni co-authored an article on retiree health care benefits under ERISA titled “Understanding M&G Polymers v. Tackett,” published by Benefits Magazine in April 2015.

Photo of Chad Thornton Chad Thornton

Chad Thornton is an associate in the Labor & Employment Law Department and a member of the Employment Litigation & Counseling Group.