2023 was a banner year for work stoppages, according to Pew Research. Pew looked at the metric “cumulative days idle” from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That measure uses a formula including the number of workers involved in a strike and the number of days the strike lasted, calculating the total number of worker-days lost in the course of each work stoppage.
For this century, 2023 had the highest number: 16.7 million total days idle. That included not just the United Auto Workers Strike, which contributed 925,900 days to the total, but the Screen Actors Guild, the Writers Guild, and the strike against Kaiser Permanente.
In fact, many major work stoppages have bern outside of manufacturing. Only 11% of the work stoppages since 2018 have been in the manufacturing sector. Two thirds of the strikes during those years were in education and healthcare.
The largest single work stoppage of the century was in the advertising industry, in 2000, when actors racked up 17,280,000 cumulative days idle. Grocery store workers had 5,718,100 idle days in 2004. Our mental image of strikers might be all about the factories, but that’s not the reality — at least not in the 21st century.
The 20th century
Things were different in the 20th century. From the 1950s through the 1970s, strikes were common. Steelworkers, textile workers, factory workers at General Motors and Caterpillar, brewery workers, and many more would have added up to millions of cumulative idle days — but the BLS was not yet counting those days.
The first strike
Some of the strikes we’ve mentioned were successful from the point of view of the workers and some were successful from the point of view of the employers. But there were many more strikes than the ones we’ve mentioned. In fact, the earliest recorded work stoppage was the strike among Ancient Egyptian tomb workers in 1170 BC.
The workers downed tools and walked off the job when they didn’t receive their expected wheat rations. Makes sense to us.