July 15--The 30 or so strikers picketing outside the Sorrento Lactalis cheese factory were in high spirits just hours after walking off their jobs in a contract dispute, smiling and waving at the cars that honked as they drove past to show their support for the Teamsters.
Less than three days later, the 257 striking Teamsters were back on the job after ratifying a new three-year contract that included "comprehensive health coverage" and wage increases.
It was a happy ending to a high-stakes gamble by Local 264. The reality is that, for workers these days, striking is a very risky business. And it's the reason why strikes are so unusual these days.
"They're fairly rare," said John Slenker, the state Labor Department's regional economist in Buffalo, who keeps track of strike activity in Western New York. "It's been very quiet."
Quiet, but not silent. Less than two miles away from the Sorrento Lactalis plant, more than 750 registered nurses at Mercy Hospital were making noise about a potential strike after rejecting a four-year contract offer from Catholic Health System last week.
By Slenker's count, there were only two major strikes involving local workers last year -- a company-wide Verizon Communications walkout that affected 1,100 employees in the Buffalo Niagara region and a strike by about 125 workers at Gowanda Rehabilitation Nursing Center.
The other big work stoppage last year, involving nearly 400 BlueCross BlueShield workers, wasn't a strike. It was an ugly lockout initiated by the health insurer that lasted more than 12 weeks.
Either way, it was a flurry of work stoppages compared with the previous two years. By Slenker's unofficial count, the Buffalo Niagara region didn't have a single major strike during either 2009 or 2010, as the economy slogged through the
worst recession since the 1930s.
One reason for that is the economy. It's gotten a little better since the depths of the recession, although it's far from strong. Workers in 2009 and 2010 were more concerned with preserving their jobs while they rode out the downturn, often agreeing to concessions, pay freezes or even pay cuts.
Now that the economy is getting a little better, they're looking for contracts that will bring a little improvement to their standard of living from employers that still are making their way through a bumpy and uncertain economy.
"I think one of the reasons you see a little bit more activity is because of the stagnant wages and the impact of cutbacks on pensions and health care," said Lou Jean Fleron, an emeritus professor at Cornell University'sIndustrial Labor Relations School in Buffalo.
"It's the macroeconomic conditions of growing inequality and stagnant wages on what we used to call the middle class," she said. "They've seen a decline in their standard of living."
We're seeing the same trend nationally. After averaging around 21 strikes a year from 2005 to 2007, the number of work stoppages involving at least 1,000 workers fell to 15 in 2008 and just five in 2009, as the economy bottomed out. But we've been seeing more work stoppages since then, rising to 11 in 2010 and 19 last year. We're on pace for about 12 this year, based on figures through May from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Still, strikes are a last resort for workers, who have come to realize that they usually don't have a lot of leverage, especially in a weak labor market where it often wouldn't be too hard for companies to find replacement workers, find extra capacity at sister plants, or even outsource the work entirely.
Sorrento Lactalis, for instance, responded to a strike that idled roughly half of its workforce by calling nonunion employees back from vacation to help keep the plant running. The company also said it could supplement its production with cheese from its biggest plant, located in Nampa, Idaho. Just as important, though, the two sides kept talking and came to an agreement in relatively short order.
"A lot of it depends on how profitable the company is, and how hard it is to replace the workers," Fleron said.
"A strike is never taken lightly," Fleron said. "What you have to remember about a strike is that it's brutally hard on the people who go on strike. It's much harder on the individual people who go on strike than the companies."
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