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Johnnie Kallas

Kallas Keeps Labor on Track

As a high school student, Johnnie Kallas, M.S. ’20, Ph.D. ’23, had a “quirky” interest in the labor movement.

Grandparents on both sides of his family were union members. His maternal grandmother was a teacher on Long Island, and his paternal grandfather worked at a Manhattan post office. “From stories my parents told me, it seemed the economic security brought by unions was important in a lot of ways,” Kallas said.

Attending a steelworkers' education conference “fueled my interest even more, not only in unions and the labor movement, but also in income inequality and power relations at work. It was a transformative experience.”

Now, through the Labor Action Tracker, Kallas transforms how others learn about labor.

The tracker is a database of strike activity with an interactive map that provides a comprehensive look at workplace conflict. It launched in 2021 to fill a data void.

Until Reagan administration funding cuts in the early 1980s, Kallas said, the Bureau of Labor Statistics kept “really comprehensive” strike data. Since then, it has only documented work stoppages of 1,000 or more workers lasting at least an entire shift.

Kallas started the tracker with Associate Professor Eli Friedman, who served on his dissertation committee and continues as a faculty adviser to the project.

“We wanted to create a tool that documented strikes of all sizes, both by union and non-union workers,” said Kallas, winner of the Labor and Employment Relations Association’s 2024 Best Dissertation Award. “Bringing the strike back in: Understanding strike strategies and effectiveness in the United States" will be highlighted by the association on June 29 at its annual meeting.

Kallas’s Ph.D. supervisor, Alexander Colvin, Ph.D. ’99, ILR’s Kenneth F. Kahn ’69 Dean and Martin F. Scheinman ’75, M.S. ’76, Professor of Conflict Resolution, said the dissertation is an innovative and ground-breaking exploration of strikes. “He shows how this key labor activity and source of union power has undergone a resurgence, changing shape in recent years with the spread of new tactics like short, fixed-duration strikes. His dissertation will change how we think about strike activity in the U.S. and is a very worthy winner of LERA’s Kochan-Sleigh Best Dissertation Award.”

The award has been won by a number of ILRies including Colvin, Bradley Weinberg, M.S.’13, Ph.D ’16, Mark Gough Ph.D ’15, Tashlin Lakhani M.S. ’11, Ph.D ’14, Mingwei Liu, Ph.D ’08, Danielle Van Jaarsveld, M.S.’00, Ph.D ’05, and Ariel Avgar, Ph.D. ’08, now ILR’s David M. Cohen Professor of Labor Relations and senior associate dean for Outreach and sponsored research.

Kallas is now an assistant professor at the University of Illinois School of Labor and Employment Relations and project director of the tracker, which has become a joint ILR-Illinois effort.

Policymakers, labor organizations, researchers and teachers use the tracker. But it is used most often by journalists.

“We’ve been cited dozens, if not hundreds, of times by leading news media, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times,” Kallas said.

Data for the tracker is derived from Google News, social media searches and labor organization contacts.

“Along with the occurrence of a strike, we record the size of the action, the demands of striking or protesting workers, the industry, the union or labor organization, the employer,” Kallas said. “We capture all of that and then enter it into the map.”

A small team of undergraduate and graduate student research assistants does the work. Since late 2020, there have been about a dozen assistants. The ILR research assistants will soon be joined by their Illinois counterparts.

Kathryn Ritchie ’24, a strike tracker research assistant since 2021, has collected data on strikes, handled social media and worked on the annual report.

“From the start,” she said, “Johnnie has been an amazing mentor. He is incredibly supportive in a way that makes you comfortable being independent.

“He’s also very humble, which has had a profound impact on me. It’s inspiring to see someone who is so dedicated to his work and the people affected by it.”

Ritchie said her experience with the tracker confirmed her desire to work in the labor movement after graduation.

Kallas, who earned a bachelor’s degree at Oberlin College, spent a few years as an organizer with the Service Employees International Union’s Fight for $15 campaign in Cleveland and Memphis, Tennessee, and in a labor representation role with the California Nurses Association. “Although I appreciated the on-the-ground experience, I got burned out by the work and thought a research or academic track might be a better fit.”

He initially enrolled in ILR’s MILR program. But, after realizing that he wanted to do academic research, he applied and was accepted into the Ph.D. program.

“Dean Colvin always put me in a position to succeed and consistently provided guidance and helpful advice,” Kallas said. “I was really supported by him, and by the ILR School more broadly, in undertaking the Labor Action Tracker and getting the resources needed to do so.”

Kallas was a teaching assistant for Professor Ilene DeVault’s “Introduction to Labor History” class and Associate Professor Adam Seth Litwin’s “Introduction to Labor Relations” class. “Although my research is focused on the contemporary labor movement, I have a deep appreciation for labor history,” Kallas said.

Particularly influential, he said, was Rose Batt, ILR’s Alice Cook Professor of Women and Work. “She introduced me to the importance of studying not only unions in the labor movement, but also management and employers as diverse and important actors. She pushed me in both my research and professional development.”

Although he describes the tracker as “the coolest project I got involved in,” Kallas spent much of his time at ILR doing qualitative research. “I went out into the field and interviewed nurses who were on strike in Worcester, Massachusetts, and health care workers who were on strike in Buffalo. I interviewed Starbucks workers in Kansas City, Missouri, Seattle and Boston. I took away a lot from my qualitative fieldwork, which helped me land the job I have today.”

“At ILR, I had access to so many excellent faculty members and graduate students,” he said. “They enriched my experience in ways I’m so thankful for.”

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