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Increasingly Cautious, Unions Less Likely To Strike

Public employees hold protest signs at an April 4 union rally in Cleveland.
Tony Dejak
Public employees hold protest signs at an April 4 union rally in Cleveland.

Whether public or private sector, unions are clearly on the ropes. An ever smaller percentage of American workers belong to unions. And striking — one of the chief tools of organized labor — seems to have become a thing of the past.

Take the following statistic, for example: In 1952 there were 470 work stoppages or strikes around the country; in 2010 there were 11.

If you want a glimpse of why there was such a sharp drop, you need only to sit down with Mark Sanders and his father, Larry "Lefty" Sanders.

Lefty has had his nickname since he was 10 years old, when he got the moniker from pitching baseball. (Not, he says, because he's a union man.)

In the late 1970s and early '80s, Lefty was head of the Ohio Association of Professional Firefighters.

Now Mark Sanders has the same job. But he says the union organizing of his day is quite different from what it was when his father ran things.

"Really we've professionalized it," Mark Sanders says. "[We] put it in a room like this with a table and really do the good work of professional negotiation sessions rather than a take-it-or-leave-it [approach]."

But if you ask Lefty how he and his son differ on the job, he likely won't talk about professionalization. Instead, he'll pull out a piece of paper and rattle off a list of cities: "Canton two times, Youngstown two times, Marion, Mansfield, Findlay, Fostoria ... Mansfield, Lorain was at the same time, Steubenville, Dayton, Toledo, Lima."

These are Ohio cities where Lefty oversaw firefighter strikes, and as he recalls, there were once as many as 10 strikes in 20 months.

The 1979 strike in Toledo, though, is what Lefty calls the mother of all strikes.

"You could look out over Toledo in the morning, and it looked like Atlanta burning," he says, "[like in] them old Civil War pictures."

And in Toledo, it wasn't just firefighters who walked off the job. Bridge tenders left seven Toledo bridges up in the air and abandoned their posts. Police officials parked 200 cruisers downtown — leaving lights and sirens on, and throwing their car keys in the sewers.

"That's how frustrated people were," Lefty says. "These are not children doing this."

But despite this intensity, he believes the Toledo strike — and other Ohio strikes of his time — did not turn public opinion against unions.

Republican William Batchelder, speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives, disagrees.

"Obviously, it was something that had alienated a lot of people," he says.

Batchelder was in the House during Ohio's labor turmoil in the 1970s. He suggests that the strikes were damaging to the perception of unions in part because the types of workers striking were ones the public sees as creators of calm, not chaos.

"They are some of our most important public employees in terms of importance to the average citizen," he says. "Those are life-saving duties."

David Stebenne, a professor of history and law at Ohio State University, is of a similar mindset — in terms of both the Ohio strikes and the many other strikes that occurred across the country in the '70s.

"The closer it gets toward a public employee who on a daily basis does something that saves lives, the more resistant the public is to striking," he says. "They may be sympathetic to other forms of labor activity, but simply walking off the job is not generally viewed as acceptable."

Stebenne says union workers initially won the battles of the late '70s and '80s, but increased foreign competition and other economic factors have since led to more anti-union sentiment. That's why, today, going on strike can be a much riskier move.

"You might actually lose," Stebenne says. "And your union might be destroyed in the process. And so labor — as it gets weaker — becomes ever more cautious."

Lefty Sanders, though, remains unapologetic. For him, part of the reason America's labor movement is in a predicament is the fact that union leaders like his son have become too cautious.

"When he got this job, I said, 'I hope you never have to do and work in the same situations we did,' " Lefty says. "Unfortunately, it may be coming to pass."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sonari Glinton is a NPR Business Desk Correspondent based at our NPR West bureau. He covers the auto industry, consumer goods, and consumer behavior, as well as marketing and advertising for NPR and Planet Money.