Surge in labor strikes points to bolder unions Successful walkouts, tight markets boost confidence, experts say


The recent strikes at Northwest Airlines, General Motors, Bell Atlantic and US West represent the biggest surge in major walkouts in years and, industrial relations experts say, point to a new aggressiveness on the part of the nation's labor unions.

Even though union membership rolls are slipping and the slowing economy threatens workers, unions have grown bolder, labor experts say, because of the tight labor market, more combative union leadership and the Teamsters' gains in last year's UPS strike.

In 1996, the number of strikes nationwide had fallen to its lowest level in 50 years, 374, but it rose to 394 last year. Even before the strikes of this summer, the number of work stoppages increased this year, rising to 226 in the first six months from 214 the first six months of last year, according to the Bureau of National Affairs.

Even more significant for labor, striking unions have emerged more successful than in recent years, pressuring U.S. West, for instance, to scale back mandatory overtime and Bell Atlantic to stop making most new jobs nonunion.

"All this represents a more confident and aggressive labor movement," said Harley Shaiken, a professor of industrial relations at the University of California at Berkeley. "In the 1980s, so many highly visible, pivotal strikes ended somewhere between disaster and debacle, but what we've seen this year is a number of important successes for unions. It might not be time to crack out the champagne bottles, but it's probably time for a couple of cold beers on Labor Day to celebrate what's taken place."

But many business leaders assert that the recent eruption of strikes stems not from an emboldened labor movement, but from coincidence -- many collective bargaining agreements in industries with volatile labor relations have expired this summer.

"I don't see a trend," said Patrick Cleary, vice president for human resources policy at the National Association of Manufac- turers. "I don't get a sense of any change in the national Zeitgeist."

One cause for the surge in strikes is that many corporations continue to demand concessions. For instance, the 34,000 workers at U.S. West went on strike after the company insisted on replacing the across-the-board pay increases that unions favor with a pay-for-performance system, which would have given management discretion over each worker's raises -- an idea abhorred by unions. The GM strike began after the company refused to make good on promises to invest $300 million in a metal-stamping plant in Flint, Mich.

John Sweeney, the president of the AFL-CIO, attributes the rise in strikes to both sides: greater labor confidence and management hardheadedness. He said it was understandable that workers would strike when many corporations are making record profits and union members feel they are not getting their share of the pie.

Pub Date: 9/07/98

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