Increasingly Cautious, Unions Less Likely To Strike

Apr 26, 2011

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 past.

Take the following stat, 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 Lefty, or Larry 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 Sanders was head of the Ohio Association of Professional Firefighters.

Now Mark Sanders has the same job. But he says that 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."

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 Sanders 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 Sanders 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 Sanders says. "These are not children doing this."

But despite this intensity, he believes that 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 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 — both in terms of the Ohio strikes, and the many other strikes that occurred across the country in the '70s.

"The closer it gets towards 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.'" Sanders said. "Unfortunately, it may be coming to pass." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit