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A record number of US workers went on strike in 2018

Working-class Americans haven’t been this fed up with their employers since the 1980s.

Strikers with UNITE HERE Local 26 hold a picket line outside of the Ritz Carlton in Boston on Oct. 5, 2018, after workers walked off the job at seven Marriott hotels in Boston Wednesday morning, launching the citys first major hotel strike in modern histo
Striking workers picket outside the Ritz Carlton in Boston in October 2018 after thousands of employees walked off the job at seven Marriott-owned hotels in the city.
Michael Swensen/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Last year’s labor unrest started with a teachers strike in West Virginia and ended with Marriott workers picketing across four states.

A record number of US workers went on strike or stopped working in 2018 because of labor disputes with employers, according to new data released Tuesday by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. A total of 485,000 employees were involved in major work stoppages last year — the highest number since 1986, when flight attendants, garbage collectors, and steelworkers walked off the job.

The increasing number of workers involved in labor strikes suggests that average Americans are not experiencing the “economic miracle” that President Donald Trump has described. They see the economy expanding and profits growing, but this doesn’t extend to their paychecks.

Frustrated public school teachers were behind the year’s largest walkouts, but hotel housekeepers and steelworkers also organized strikes that lasted for days.

Working-class Americans haven’t been this fed up with their employers since the 1980s, as this chart shows:

Work stoppages had decreased in recent decades. US Department of Labor

To be clear, not all 485,000 workers involved in the stoppages were on strike. That number includes people who couldn’t work because employers temporarily shut down operations during the walkouts. It also includes lockouts, in which an employer refuses to let workers do their jobs when they are involved in a contract dispute.

But nearly all of the 20 major work stoppages in 2018 involved massive labor strikes, which ended up boosting wages for thousands of workers. And public school teachers fueled a lot of the resistance.

Here are the four largest strikes of the year, based on workdays missed and number of employees involved.

The Arizona teachers strike

Arizona teachers organized the largest walkout of the year last April. About 81,000 teachers and school staff didn’t work for six days, adding up to a total of 486,000 lost days of work, according to the new data.

Teachers in the state were protesting low pay and cuts to public education funding. Like the teachers who went on strike in West Virginia and Oklahoma, teachers in Arizona are among the lowest-paid in the country and have suffered some of the deepest cuts to public school funding — largely a result of steep Republican tax cuts that didn’t bring the promised economic windfall.

Nearly all of the state’s 2,000-plus schools closed during the walkout.

The state’s teachers returned to class on May 4 after the state legislature gave them a 20 percent salary raise over three years, and some extra funding for public education.

Teachers didn’t get everything they wanted, though; they had asked legislators to raise business and income taxes on wealthy Arizonans to restore cuts to public education and boost anemic teacher salaries. Republicans gave in to some of the demands for more funding, but they’re not paying for the salary hike with new taxes on the wealthy.

Instead, the legislature passed a fee on motorists and shifted most of the cost of desegregating schools from the state to taxpayers in low-income school districts. Those levies will largely hit working- and middle-class households.

Arizona teachers were inspired to go on strike after watching teachers in Oklahoma demand higher pay earlier that month.

The Oklahoma teachers strike

Oklahoma educators organized the second-largest strike of 2018 back in April. About 45,000 school teachers and staff refused to go to work for nine days, adding up to a total of 405,000 lost days of work.

Oklahoma’s teachers were rebelling against years of deep cuts to education that have left 20 percent of public schools on a four-day-week schedule and average teacher salaries that rank 49th lowest in the country.

Teachers in Oklahoma demanded $3.3 billion over the next three years for school funding, benefits, and pay raises for all public employees. Many state employees joined the strike as well. They rallied for days at the capitol in Oklahoma City, prompting nearly half of the state’s 500-plus school districts to shut down (the schools that closed serve about 75 percent of the state’s students).

Nine days later, the teachers union returned to work. They got $479 million in extra school funding from state lawmakers, including raises, a fraction of what they wanted.

The West Virginia teachers strike

Teachers in West Virginia launched the first major strike of the year in February.

A total of 35,000 educators and school staff didn’t go to work during the stoppage, adding up to a total of 318,600 lost workdays.

Teachers in the state hadn’t gotten an across-the-board salary raise since 2014, and were among the lowest-paid teachers in the country. The average teacher salary in the state was $44,701 in 2016, according to the National Education Association, ranking West Virginia 48th in the nation in average teacher salaries.

Lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans, have been cutting corporate and business taxes for more than a decade. As a result, public schools have been losing millions of dollars each year in state money, which is the main source of funding for local schools, followed by local property taxes. The amount of money the state of West Virginia now spends on each student is 11.4 percent lower than it was before the economy tanked in 2008.

So West Virginia teachers went on strike, shutting down all public schools in the state for nine days. The walkout ended after the governor and state leaders agreed to give teachers what they wanted: a 5 percent raise and a hold on increasing health insurance premiums.

The Marriott workers strike

The largest hotel strike in US history happened back in October, when 6,000 Marriott employees in four states refused to go to work until the company agreed to give them a raise and increase their benefits. By the end of the two-month strike, a total of 215,900 work days were lost.

In December, about 2,500 striking hotel workers in San Francisco ratified a new contract with the hotel chain after months of tense negotiations, according to their labor union, Unite Here. It was the final deal reached during the stoppage, which had spread to 23 Marriott hotels in eight cities.

Hotel housekeepers, bartenders, and other staff grew frustrated with Marriott over the summer, after the labor contracts for about 12,000 workers started to expire. They were trying to negotiate better contracts to replace the five-year contracts that were ending, but progress was slow.

By September, negotiations with the company had stalled, and workers across the country voted to authorize a strike. On Labor Day, police arrested 75 Marriott employees for blocking a street as they protested outside the Westin St. Francis hotel in San Francisco.

The strikes came at a time when the company was making record earnings. In recent years, Marriott International has grown into one of the largest and most profitable hotel chains in the world. After buying Starwood Hotels in 2016, the company now runs more than 6,500 properties, including the Ritz-Carlton, Sheraton, and Renaissance Hotels. The company is valued at about $49.4 billion, nearly double the value of Hilton, according to Forbes, and made $3.2 billion in profits in 2017 alone.

The hotel chain’s workers wanted a larger share of that revenue. They argued that servers’ and housekeepers’ low wages (which vary by city) make it impossible to live in some of the nation’s most expensive cities. They also asked the company to ease strenuous workloads that often lead to injuries, and for more protection against sexual harassment and violence.

The new union contracts vary by city, but in San Francisco, housekeepers got a $4 hourly raise over the next four years. Right now, their median hourly wage is $23, according to the New York Times. Retiring employees will also get a small pension based on how many years they’ve worked at the company.

Marriott also agreed to provide GPS-enabled panic buttons for housekeepers to alert security staff if a guest makes them feel unsafe while they’re cleaning a room.

The new contracts ended months of loud, heated protests outside some of America’s most iconic Marriott-owned hotels.

The trend isn’t slowing down

There are no signs that worker angst has subsided. So far, in 2019, teachers in two major cities have launched their own strikes.

In January, Los Angeles public school teachers ended a strike that shut down the nation’s second-largest school district for more than a week.

As part of their deal with city officials, teachers agreed to a 6 percent raise and slightly fewer students in each classroom, according to Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, a labor union that represents about 34,000 public school teachers, nurses, librarians, and support staff in the city.

And more than 2,000 teachers in Denver are on strike right now. Educators want the school district to overhaul the compensation system, which relies heavily on bonuses that fluctuate wildly from year to year.

They also say their base salaries are too low for Denver’s high cost of living and aren’t keeping up with pay in neighboring districts. They’ve pointed out that the district has way more administrators than other districts of similar size, which eats into the school budget.

If 2018 is any indication, there’s a good chance that these new strikes are just the beginning.

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