Big Contracts Face Renewal in 2001 That Will Test the Muscle of Unions ; If Economy Slows, the Number of Strikes Is Likely to Decline as Workers Lose Leverage

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After a seven-week strike - some of it involving picketing in sub- zero temperatures - Emil Fritz is glad to be back at work.

Union leaders "got what they were asking for - better wages for new hirees and the guaranteed health benefits," says Mr. Fritz, a worker at Olin Corp., a maker of copper alloys, ammunition, and chemicals here in East Alton, Ill.

Their apparent victory is a sign that despite the United States' cooling economy, strikes remain a potent weapon for organized labor. Already on the rebound in the past year, strikes could play a role in several huge contracts due to be negotiated this year, disrupting everything from airline flights to TV schedules. Whether they do depends, in large part, on the job market in the coming months.

Leverage index

If a recession boosts unemployment, union workers won't readily walk off their jobs, fearing others would take them, labor experts say.

But if the economy merely slows to a more moderate pace, unemployment should stay low and allow unions to press their advantage in a tight labor market.

"It's been so incredibly tight up to this point that even a slight loosening may still leave us with mostly full employment," says James Brock, an economics professor at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

"There might be some more strikes because workers feel some greater insecurity," adds Gary Chaison, professor of labor relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. "They may feel concerned enough that they increase their militancy in bargaining."

Although union power and militancy have declined dramatically since the 1950s and '60s, strike activity has rebounded somewhat in the past year. It's not that the US has necessarily seen more strikes, but the work stoppages that do occur last longer and involve more workers.

Through July of 2000 (the latest figures available), the number of workers involved in major strikes (those involving 1,000 workers or more) jumped five times from the same period in 1999, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Worker days lost to strikes reached the highest level since at least 1989.

Last year was marked by several high-profile walkouts, including ones against telecommunications giant Verizon and Los Angeles County. Such well-publicized strikes "embolden other workers because of their success," says Mr. Chaison of Clark University.

Big contracts up for renewal

This year, more big contracts in high-profile industries will come due, according to the Bureau of National Affairs, a private news organization based in Washington. …