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In tough economy, labor strikes are losing ground

Image: workers on strike
After 16 janitors were let go from a luxury building in Los Angeles owned by J.P. Morgan Chase, five of them staged a three-day hunger strike on Aug. 24. Jacob Hay/SEIU

When Karl Fendelander, 27, got one of his first real jobs as a warehouse worker for a manufacturing company in Reno, Nev., a lot of people were giving him dirty looks at work. He was sent there by a temp agency and was unaware that the bulk of facility’s regular workers were on strike.

At the end of his shift, an older employee told him about the work stoppage and suggested, strongly, that he not return.

“I read about scabs and strikes in high school, but I didn’t know this was something that happened in contemporary settings often,” said Fendelander, who heeded the worker’s recommendation.

Indeed, labor strikes — seen as one of the key bargaining chips unions have had to get good wages and working conditions from employers — some day may end up only in history books. Not great news after Labor Day weekend, when we’re supposed to be celebrating the social and economic achievements of working stiffs everywhere.

The number of major U.S. strikes, including those involving 1,000 workers or more, fell to just five in 2009, the lowest level since 1947, when the Department of Labor first began tracking the data.

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“The bottom line is that unions know the strike weapon just doesn't work that well anymore, especially in a tough economy,” said Phillip Wilson, president of the Labor Relations Institute.

The decline of the strike, however, didn’t just start with this recession.

As the economy has become more globalized over the last few decades and the stream of jobs going overseas to lower labor cost nations, “employees have become more fearful of losing their jobs and less willing to call a strike to begin with,” said John Budd, program director of the Center for Human Resources and Labor Studies at the Carlson School of Management.

Employers have also become more aggressive in bringing in replacement workers, he added, and adding to the problem is the growth of the temporary work force in this country.

“All these factors have conspired against unions and workers in terms of the viability of the strike,” he maintained. The attitude nationally, he said, has largely “moved to the individual and not group solidarity.”

A lot of it may also have to do with younger generations who had little exposure to the organized labor movement, and have no qualms about crossing a picket line.

“People aren’t as familiar with union values as they might have been 30 years ago when there was a much higher union density,” said Richard Hurd, professor of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University’s ILR School.

The U.S. union membership rate in 2009 was 12.3 percent, down from 20.1 percent in 1983, the earliest year available with comparable data, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

And finding people willing to cross a picket line of striking workers, often called scabs, is easier during troubled economic times, noted Hurd, because jobs are hard to come by and public support often wanes.

Some management advocates see the diminishing of strikes as more of an awakening by organized labor that strikes actually jeopardize job security for workers.

“The recession has impacted employers in a negative way,” said Sheryl Willert, an attorney with the Defense Research Institute, a national organization of defense trial lawyers and corporate counsel. “Even if you’re not going to get significant pay increase, or benefits, or have increased deductibles, it’s better to have those jobs or benefits in some form rather than going off the job and trying to cripple the employers.”

But many labor advocate believe there are some employers who are using the bad economy as an excuse to slash the pay and benefits of their employers and boost their companies bottom lines and in turn their paychecks.

“Some corporations have enormous amounts of money now and they’re strangling the recovery,” said Stephen Lerner, director of banking and finance for one of the nation’s largest labor unions, the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU.

“CEO pay is up, share prices are up, but they’re not paying people, they’re using temp workers, and they’re not hiring,” he said.

But Lerner doesn’t think traditional strikes will necessarily rectify the problems.

“What workers are finding is there are many different ways to put pressure on corporations to behave responsibly,” he said. Putting pressure on pension funds, banks and stock holders, he explained, as well as embarrassing companies by garnering wide-spread community support, helps to broaden the issue beyond just the workers.

Clearly, employers have strong bargaining power in a tough economy, but workers are also very committed to protecting their livelihoods.

After 16 janitors were let go from a luxury building in Los Angeles owned by J.P. Morgan Chase, five of them staged a three-day hunger strike on Aug. 24.

“They haven’t gotten their jobs back but it did get attention,” said Mike Chavez, a spokesman for the SEIU United Service Workers West, representing the janitors at the building.

Unfortunately, much of the press coverage of the hunger strike and the rally held by union workers supporting the laid off janitors focused on the traffic snarls that resulted not the workers’ plight.

Joe Burns, a labor negotiator and attorney who is a strong advocate of strikes, thinks this is par for the course.

“All these methods of shaming employers, while good and helpful, haven’t been able to harm the employer enough to revive trade unionism,” explained Burns, author of the upcoming book “Reviving the Strike: How working people can regain power and transform America.”

Unions, he continued, have abandoned the tactics that made them strong in the first place. While he believes more aggressive approaches by employers that began in the 1980s, and a legal system that’s often been pro business, has taken the punch out of strikes, he puts the onus on unions and workers.

“The main problem facing the labor movement is not the laws or courts, or economics,” he said. “It’s basically our way of thinking. Without the powerful strike, there will be no stabile basis for a strong prosperous working class in this country.”

Since his day as a scab, Fendelander faced his own problems with employers, including not being paid over time he was owed at a restaurant he worked for.

Fendelander, who is now an editor for an online college directory, and is happy with his employer, has come to see the value in strikes because of his past experience.

“Without the ability to strike, workers don’t have a lot of control,” he said.