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Walkout by Verizon workers bucks a national trend toward fewer strikes

When nearly 40,000 Verizon workers walked off the job last week, it was the nation’s biggest work stoppage in nearly five years.

In fact, it’s the biggest strike since 45,000 Verizon workers walked out for 10 days in 2011.

That alone should tell you something about how unusual it is for workers, especially at private companies, to walk off their jobs.

And for so many to do it.

“Extended strikes and work stoppages have become much more rare,” said Arthur Wheaton, director of Western New York Labor and Environmental Programs at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations in Buffalo.

The work stoppage at Verizon is almost as big as all of the major strikes that took place across the country during 2015 combined, and is far bigger than all of the strikes that took place during 2014, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In all, 47,000 workers took part in a dozen work stoppages last year that involved more than 1,000 workers. In 2014, there were just 11 major strikes and they affected a total of 34,000 workers – less than the number of unionized employees who walked out at Verizon last week.

Last year’s biggest strike – a walkout by nearly 17,000 teachers in Washington State – was half the size of the Verizon work stoppage. And the biggest strike at a private company – a walkout by 6,600 workers at Royal Dutch Shell refineries – was just one-sixth the size of the Verizon work stoppage.

Today’s strikes also tend to be shorter. Just five of last year’s 12 strikes lasted for a month or more. Half ended in a week or less and three of those were just one-day stoppages.

In fact, one-day walkouts are becoming a more popular tool for the labor movement.

Organizers view one-day strikes as a less risky way of catching the public eye and drawing attention to their grievances, without jeopardizing the jobs of their members in a workplace environment that has been hostile to strikes ever since President Ronald Reagan fired 11,000 air traffic controllers for violating a ban on strikes by federal employees in 1981.

“You can get most of the news impact from a one-day strike, without having the economic impact of a three-month strike,” Wheaton said.

But other trends are at work, as well, not the least of which is the fear that companies will hire replacement workers – as Verizon says it’s doing.

“That’s a huge gamble that a lot of unions do not want to take,” Wheaton said.

U.S. manufacturing – long a bastion of strength for unions – has been under pressure for decades, squeezed by the rise of globalization and free trade movements that made it easier for companies to shift low-skilled work to cheaper foreign sites.

“You’re no longer competing with a domestic market. It’s an international market,” Wheaton said.

The state of the economy also is a factor. During the depths of the recession, in 2009, the nation had just five major work stoppages as companies grappled with weak markets. Workers also realized that, with unemployment rates peaking at around 10 percent, there were plenty of potential replacements available and fairly few job alternatives.

But the economy has rebounded, and Verizon’s striking workers are emboldened by the company’s solid profits, fueling their resistance to proposals that would outsource more call center jobs to the Philippines and Mexico and hire more non-union contractors.

Companies also have taken advantage of federal laws and regulators that are less friendly to the labor movement to crack down on unionization efforts.

As a result, union membership in the private sector has plummeted to 6.7 percent last year after hovering around 30 percent in the 1950s and 1960s.

Union membership is much stronger in the public sector, where 35 percent of all workers belonged to a union last year, according to labor department data.

Just seven of last year’s major strikes were at private businesses, but those work stoppages tended to drag on for the longest.

A lockout at Allegheny Technologies, including its Lockport plant, lasted for seven months before it was settled in March. The Royal Dutch Shell refinery workers were off the job for more than 4½ months.

But even in this era where work stoppages are rare, Verizon workers haven’t been afraid to walk off the job. They’ve done it three times during this century, including a three-week walkout in 2000 that affected 80,000 workers.

So they know what they’re getting into, but it’s still a risky business.