Ford faces a strike—but strikes don't happen much anymore

United Auto Workers (UAW) walk a picket line at a Chrysler parts distribution center October 10, 2007, in Naperville, Ill.
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United Auto Workers (UAW) walk a picket line at a Chrysler parts distribution center October 10, 2007, in Naperville, Ill.

If the recent threat from the United Auto Workers to strike at the Ford plant in Kansas City seems like a strange event, that may be because strikes are much rarer than they were only a decade ago.

There have been only 1,600 work stoppages from labor disputes in the last decade — compared to twice as many between 1995 and 2004. In the decade before that, there were four times as many, according to a Big Crunch analysis of data from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.

If we look only at major strikes — those that affect at least 1,000 workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — there were three times as many of those strikes as two decades ago. That added up to six times as many working hours and billions of dollars of lost work compared to the number of stoppages today.

Some might argue that the reduction in union size is the main reason strikes are down, but consider this: over that period, union membership fell only 10 percent. The number of strikes is down much more.

The threatened strike would shut down Ford's Kansas City, Missouri, plant, which makes the F-150 truck, a huge moneymaker. If disagreements over the contract for the local plant aren't resolved by Sunday, its 7,500 workers could walk out and every day that facility is down will cost Ford.

"We work every day to avoid a disruption of our production," Ford said in a statement, "and we are confident we will be able to negotiate a fair and competitive labor agreement with our UAW partners."

The UAW is also negotiating a new national agreement with Ford for nearly 53,000 unionized factory workers in the United States.

Auto workers have made deep concessions to employers in recent decades and in the wake of the financial crisis, but in the new four-year agreements being negotiated this year, UAW leaders are looking for a bigger share of profits from the flourishing Big Three automakers. On Wednesday, auto workers at Fiat Chrysler appeared to reject a contract deal made between the UAW and company executives earlier this month (a final tally is expected out Thursday morning). It would be the first time a major UAW contract has been rejected by workers in 30 years.

If it comes to it, a Ford strike would be the first major work stoppage by the UAW since 2,600 workers picketed the Bell Helicopter factory in Forth Worth, Texas, for one day in 2013.

Even the relatively sparse striking that took place during the last 10 years wasted about 11 million days of work (the number of workers involved times the days they're on strike) that could have been productive for companies, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service estimates that direct and indirect costs for those lost hours came out to nearly $10 billion.

If we had the same level of striking this decade we had in the 1980s, at that rate it would cost us $217 billion. But at this point, it looks like neither workers — nor companies — are enthusiastic about making those sacrifices.

With the rise of "transplant" auto manufacturers like Toyota, Nissan and Volkswagen in the United States, a long-term strike today could not only lose sales for the company, but it could lose workers their jobs, said Richard Hurd, associate dean and professor of labor studies at Cornell.

"The situation is different from what they had in the 1970s and 1980s, when 90 percent of automobiles purchased in the United Sates were from the Big Three," said Hurd. "A strike doesn't give the same leverage, in the sense of the totally positive result it would have given back when the unions represented the key employers and majority of employees in the industry."

Today, it's more common for unions to use targeted, shorter strikes to send a message to both the union's members and employers.

"They send the message that they can strike and they can make strikes work, but without putting all their workers out on the street for an extended period," said Hurd. "To the extent that unions still use strikes, they tend to be more guerrilla warfare rather than taking on the whole front."

The UAW did not provide a comment before this story was published. Ford did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

UDPATED: This story was updated to include comments from Ford.