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In 2018, Labor Strikes Had the Largest Increase of the Last Three Decades. Here’s Why

If it seemed like a lot of workers went on strike in 2018, well, it wasn’t your imagination. There were at least 20 major work stoppages in the United States involving 485,000 workers, which is the highest increase in striking workers since 1986. Of the groups that walked out, a staggering 90% were from education, healthcare, and social assistance workers such as those in childcare, according to work stoppage data published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By comparison, between 2009 and 2018, those groups otherwise accounted for just half of work stoppages.

It’s an interesting moment for industrial actions to be on the rise again, with renewed focus on the 1919 general strike in Seattle on its centennial. (During the 1919 strike, 65,000 union workers walked off the job for six days, paralyzing the Pacific Northwest city.) But unlike previous eras, when workers on strike tended to come from sectors such as manufacturing, the 2018 surge in walkout was led by educators demanding better pay and benefits, as well as smaller class sizes and more funding.

One reason for all the walkouts? Salaries for educators and childcare workers have stagnated or even declined due to inflation. In some regions, those strikes were also the first in a generation. For example, around 33,000 West Virginia teachers and school services workers went on strike in February 2018, the first time they’d done so in the Mountain State since 1990. Tens of thousands of teachers in other states followed suit, including Arizona, Kentucky, and Oklahoma. And among the many costs of education strikes is that school districts basically bleed money when student attendance plummets.

Already in 2019, the costs of strikes have started to mount. The teachers strike in Los Angeles ended in January, and the Los Angeles Unified School District told CNN low attendance cost the district tens of millions of dollars. And nationwide, there’s little sign of a teacher strike slowdown. On Thursday, after three days on strike, teachers in Denver reached a tentative agreement. Educators in Oakland, Calif. also recently voted to authorize a strike if teachers can’t reach an agreement with the district on class size and pay.

Teacher strikes may cost money, but Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta told the Wall Street Journal that strikes are a sign of a healthy labor market. After all, if workers feel empowered to demand better pay and protections, “that reflects their confidence that they have options and opportunities,” he explained.

It remains to be seen whether that type of bargaining power will stop another federal government shutdown. With another possible closure still feared, a union representing flight attendants has mentioned the potential need for a demonstration, and a possible general strike. It’s hard to imagine the national cost, in dollars and in other quantifiable measures, such an action might entail, given that the last shutdown, which lasted a record 35 days, cost the country $11 billion, at least $3 billion of which is unrecoverable.