May 26, 2022

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What's behind the resurgence in worker unions?

What’s behind the resurgence in worker unions?

Workers at an Amazon warehouse on New York’s Staten Island voted to unionize on Friday, becoming the first employees in the company’s history to form a union in the United States. It was the second high-profile Amazon facility vote after the recent election in Bessemer, Ala., where the results are inconclusive but currently favoring management.

But the union action is not limited to Amazon. The past several months have seen successful union actions in some of the country’s most important industries, including health care, retail, manufacturing and the tech sector. Some of the most noteworthy activity has involved Starbucks. Until December, none of the coffee giant’s company-owned locations in the U.S. had a union. Today, 10 of them do, and union votes are expected at 160 more locations in the coming weeks and months.

Support for unions, both among the public and in Washington, is growing. A Gallup poll from late last year found that 68% of Americans approve of unions, the highest percentage since 1965. President Biden has repeatedly pledged to be the “most pro-union president” in American history and has staffed his administration with a long list of pro-labor appointees, including naming a former union leader as his secretary of labor.

Union membership in the U.S. has declined dramatically since the middle of the 20th century. At the peak of unions in the 1950s, more than a third of American workers belonged to one. Last year, only about 6% of workers in the private sector did.

Why there’s debate

Many supporters of the labor movement say these recent breakthroughs are a sign that unions are primed to increase their influence after decades of decline. In their eyes the combined experience of the pandemic and social justice protests has fundamentally changed what workers expect from their employers. A tight labor market may also be giving them the freedom to take risks they may not have been willing to take just a few years ago. “Something special is happening in America right now,” progressive Sen. Elizabeth Warren tweeted in response to the Staten Island warehouse vote.

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Despite its recent gains, there’s still a lot of doubt that organized labor is due for a resurgence. Skeptics point out that the U.S. economy has transformed over the past half century, with manufacturing jobs that grew to define unions in their heyday having shifted overseas. Conservatives generally argue that the new union push will fizzle out because most workers simply don’t want to be part of one. Many on the left, meanwhile, say corporations have so much power to suppress unionization drives that a nationwide labor revival may be all but impossible without changes to federal laws. A Democrat-backed bill that would expand protections for workers’ organizing efforts passed the House last year, but its prospects in the Senate appear bleak.

What’s next

Amazon has the right to challenge the results of the union vote on Staten Island. If the company decides not to, the two sides will begin bargaining over the details of a new union contract — a process that can sometimes take years to complete.

More Amazon locations may soon form their own unions. A vote is expected at a second Staten Island warehouse later this month. Amazon workers in Bessemer, Ala., have completed their election, and the outcome may hinge on the result of a legal battle over hundreds of contested ballots that have yet to be counted.

Perspectives

A new generation of workers is transforming the landscape for organized labor

“A generation, it’s clear, is stirring. The rumblings have been audible for some time, but until recently, they’ve been contained to rarified sectors of the economy. That young workers have borne the brunt of America’s economic dysfunctions has been clear since the Crash of 2008.” — Harold Meyerson, American Prospect

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Companies have enormous power to shut down union drives

“Labor organizing, historically, offers a path to workplace stability. But corporations aren’t inclined to embrace unionization. And most follow a standard playbook in an effort to stop the process — a fact that helps explain why even the most visible campaigns still run the risk of fizzling out.” — Colin Lodewick, Fortune

The pandemic has radically shifted what workers expect from their jobs

“We have not completely grasped the tsunami of changes that have fallen upon us and that will continue to fall upon us. Work has changed. Workers have changed.” — Tsedal Neeley, business administration researcher, to Vox

Skepticism of unions among workers still runs deep

“President Biden repeatedly has promised to be ‘the most pro-union president in American history.’ But there’s one key group of people standing in his way: The tens of millions of workers who want nothing to do with union membership.” — Jarrett Skorup, The Hill

The media narrative around unions has changed dramatically

“Corporate America has employed brutal anti-union campaigns for decades. What has changed, from my perspective, is that such activities are now seen as newsworthy — at least when the companies involved are household names. This coverage provides a stark contrast with past media coverage, which often depicted unionized workers as ‘overpaid, greedy and undeserving of their wealth.’” — John Logan, Conversation

The nature of work has changed so much, unions no longer make sense

“Unions in their present form no longer work for our new economy. If they want to play a role going forward they need to reinvent themselves.” — Allison Schrager, Bloomberg

The tight labor market means workers have the power to demand more, with or without unions

“Everybody’s hiring. That’s not something we’ve seen in this country any time in recent memory. It doesn’t necessarily lead to union activity, but it certainly makes workers feel like they can be more demanding, either individually or collectively.” — Ruth Milkman, labor movement researcher, to New York Times

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The economic conditions that are helping unions grow won’t last long

“The question is: How long are we in this period where workers feel like they can quit their job and go get a better one without much hassle? How long are we in this period where workers feel like they’re in the driver’s seat? My answer is: not much longer.” — Michael Strain, economist, Washington Post

Organized labor is too fragmented to mount a nationwide movement

“We are seeing unionization drives at this workplace and that one, but we are not seeing any bigger, broader effort to channel and transform all this worker energy and discontent into a new movement, one perhaps with millions of engaged and energetic nonunion workers, that would work in conjunction with the traditional union movement.” — Steven Greenhouse, Guardian

Workers who had never considered unionizing are discovering what’s possible

“A union at Starbucks can’t substitute for stronger contracts and new or revitalized unions elsewhere. But it puts unionization on the mental map for more workers. A growing number of the people Starbucks draws upon to operate its stores are eager to unionize, and that’s a good thing. Their success builds strength for other fragments of the working class.” — Alex N. Press, Jacobin

For all of his pro-union talk, Biden has made few substantive changes

“President Joe Biden has repeatedly claimed he is overseeing the most pro-union administration in generations, while it increasingly feels like having a very generous friend who is also broke: You appreciate their altruistic spirit, you just don’t actually get much out of it.” — Hamilton Nolan, In These Times