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Latest News - July 2010

July 06, 2010
Fewer workers go on strike as organized labor shrinks
Source: USA Today
By: Matthew Daneman

WILLIAMSON, N.Y. — Faced with cuts to pay and benefits, the roughly 300 hourly workers at a Mott's apple products plant on May 23 took a step rarely seen anymore.

They went on strike.

According to annual tracking by the U.S. Labor Department, 2009 saw just five major strikes or work stoppages involving 1,000 or more employees — the fewest since the agency began tracking such data in 1947.

That continued what has been a long, steady decline. According to Labor Department figures, there were on average 20 major work stoppages a year from 2000 through 2009, down from an average of 35 a year during the 1990s and 83 in the 1980s.

Strikes at smaller companies have seen the same decline, said Thomas Kochan, the George Maverick Bunker Professor of Management at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-director of its Institute for Work and Employment Research.

"The strike has lost its utility as a way of improving wages and working conditions and become at best a defensive strategy," Kochan said. "(Strikers) are fighting to avoid deeper cuts. Workers are afraid of losing their jobs."

The longest major strike in 2009 involved 2,500 United Auto Workers members at Bell Helicopter Textron plants in Texas. It ended after almost six weeks.

The largest major strike in 2009 involved 5,500 Transport Workers Union members and the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority. The transit strike in the Philadelphia area ended after six days.

In June of this year, 12,000 Minnesota Nurses Association nurses walked off the job for one day over staffing levels.

President Reagan's firing of 11,000 striking air traffic control workers in 1981 is often pointed to as a turning point in strikes, said Michael LeRoy, a professor at the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign School of Labor and Employment Relations.

"It changed an employer norm from hiring temporary replacements or idling production to replacing one set of workers with another set of workers," he said.

The decline in strikes has mirrored the decline in organized labor's numbers, LeRoy said. Union membership peaked shortly after World War II, when about 34% of the nation's workforce was represented by unions, he said. By 2009, the nation's 15.3 million unionized workers represented 12.3% of the workforce, the Labor Department reports.

"Unions used to have a lot more power," said Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University. "When you've got a lot more non-union competition, your bargaining power is reduced."

Going on strike at Mott's "was a difficult decision," said Michael Leberth, 55, of Ontario, N.Y., and president of Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union Local 220. "I know how tough the economy is. But looking at how well the company is doing ..."

The strike began on the same day Mott's was to impose a new contract that would have cut the plant's hourly workers' pay by $1.50 an hour, frozen their pension and reduced the company's 401(k) match.

In a statement, Texas-based Dr Pepper Snapple Group, which owns Mott's, said workers' average hourly wages of $21, as well as other benefits, were out of line with the western New York state labor market and with other Dr Pepper Snapple Group workers.

The statement cited the company's responsibility "to operate in the best interests of all of its constituents, recognizing that a profitable business attracts investment, generates jobs and builds communities." No negotiations are scheduled.



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