02/08/2012 02:06 pm ET

Worker Strikes Recover To Pre-Recession Levels In 2011, But Remain Modest

As the job market improves, some workers are regaining the courage to go on strike.

After dipping to record lows following the financial crisis, the number of worker strikes recovered in 2011 to pre-recession levels, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported on Wednesday. With the number of unemployed people vying for work starting to fall, workers might just be regaining some of the bargaining power lost during the recession.

"Maybe workers are a little less intimidated by the economy, and they feel more confident about going on a strike," said Gary Burtless, labor economist at the Brookings Institution.

In 2011, the United States had 19 strikes involving 1,000 or more workers -- a rise of more than 65 percent from 2010's tally of 11 strikes. In 2009, the United States had just five strikes -- a record low since the government started keeping track of this at the end of World War II. From 2002 to 2007 the number of strikes ranged from 14 to 22.

At the same time, the number of workdays idle (a calculation of a strike's length in days multiplied by the number of participants) has not reached pre-recession levels. Employers in 2011 logged 1.02 million workdays idle, down from an annual average of 2.3 million workdays idle from 2002 to 2007.

And it's unclear if these demonstrations are carrying the power of years before. About 45,000 Verizon workers across the East Coast in August took part in the largest strike of the year, resulting in 450,000 workdays idle. But they returned to work with no deal.

Last year's longest strike still has not ended: Some 1,300 workers at the American Crystal Sugar Co. facilities in Minnesota, Iowa and North Dakota been on strike since August. The company wants the freedom to use subcontractors at its factories, which the union does not accept, saying that would threaten workers' job security, according to Minnesota Public Radio.

And this wave of worker activism in 2011 is a far cry from the level of participation of decades before. From 1947 to 1979, more than 200 strikes took place every year except one. Since 1982, the number of strikes annually has been in the double or single digits.

Union membership has been declining to new lows for more than a decade. Just 11.8 percent of U.S. workers were members of unions in 2011.

The steep decline in unions' leverage since the 1970s correlates with increasing income inequality, Burtless said. During the postwar economic expansion of the late-1940s to the 1970s, "we had lots of strikes," he said. "We also had more equal income gains and wage gains."