A Labor Rebirth?
Unions appear to be making a comeback as the Covid-19 economic crisis has emboldened workers and stirred up longstanding outrage over inequality and inadequate wages and benefits.
Since Starbucks workers at stores in the Buffalo, N.Y., area petitioned to be represented by a union in August 2021, employees at about 250 Starbucks stores in 30 states have launched organizing drives. Workers at a store in Mesa, Arizona, voted in to unionize in mid-March.
In an historic victory in late March, workers at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island voted to be represented by a union. They are the first workers to successfully organize a union at the tech giant. Hundreds of workers at Amazon warehouses across the country have contacted Amazon Labor Union for help since the victory.
And in another sign of an increasingly aggressive union movement, workers at Condé Nast announced in March that they are seeking representation. The group includes 500 editorial, production, and video workers at publications where workers haven’t already unionized, including GQ, Vogue, Vanity Fair, and Architectural Review.
But despite the growing activism, unions still face enormous challenges. Employers continue to pour millions into resisting organizing drives. Not all union leaders have adopted aggressive organizing strategies, choosing instead to pour resources into defending their base. And after many years of declining membership, unions remain stuck in a deep hole.
In January, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that only 10.3 percent of the country’s workers enjoyed union representation in 2021, down from 20.1 percent in 1981. A mere 6.1 of the workers in the private sector are represented by unions.
Nevertheless, widely publicized organizing drives and a growing militancy are fueling hope for a labor revival following decades of attacks on unions that has led to the long-term downward spiral in membership and contributed to a worsening of inequality, an erosion of workplace benefits like traditional pensions, and a relentless economic squeeze on the middle class and poor.
A wave of teacher strikes that began in 2018 was an early sign of the deep-seated worker disenchantment that would blow up during the pandemic. Since then, the organizing drives at Amazon and Starbucks have captured a lot of attention.
Meanwhile, graduate students and museum, tech, and media workers are organizing like never before—and have won important victories. In February, workers at Raven Software unionized. Workers at a REI store in Manhattan have filed a petition for a union vote. Employees at several Apple stores are organizing.
Strikes are another sign of the greater militancy. Last year, taxi workers in New York, health care workers in Buffalo, Kellogg workers, and factory workers at Deere & Co. carried out successful strikes. Members of the International Alliance of Theatrical State Employees and the faculty at the University of California negotiated better pay and working conditions.
This wave of activism comes as unions are gaining greater support throughout the country. Support for unions has never been greater, according to a 2021 Gallup Poll. Some 68 percent of Americans approve of organized labor. That is up 20 percent since 2009. Support is especially strong among younger workers (GenZ and Millennials), who approve unions by 77 percent.
Labor analysts point to a number of factors explaining the greater labor activism sparked by the pandemic. The Covid-19-induced economic downturn led millions of workers to leave the workforce out of a concern for their health and safety and child-care responsibilities. They became less willing to accept poorly compensated jobs. A tight labor market and record job openings allowed workers to demand higher wages and improved benefits.
Deepening inequality heightened worker resentment over the fundamental unfairness of the U.S. economy in which the federal minimum wage remained stagnant while the earnings of billionaires skyrocketed and Covid-19 took its toll on ordinary Americans. By late 2021, nearly 90 million Americans had lost their jobs, about 45 million had suffered from Covid-19, and almost 8 million had died from it, according to figures compiled by the Economic Policy Institute. So, it’s no wonder that workers would be stirred up by the country’s unfairness.
The world’s ten richest men more than doubled their fortunes from $700 billion to $1.5 trillion—at a rate of $15,000 per second or $1.3 billion—during the first two years of a pandemic that has seen the incomes of 99 percent of humanity fall and over 160 million more people forced into poverty, according to an Oxfam report released in January. Nine out of the top ten richest men in the world are Americans.
From March 2020 to March 2022, Elon Musk’s wealth increased from $24.6 billion to $234.0 billion (851 percent), according to Forbes. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos increased his wealth from $113.0 billion to $161.5 billion (46 percent), and Bill Gates’ wealth jumped from $98.0 billion to $129.5 billion (32 percent).
Amazon CEO Bezos’s soaring wealth served as a rallying cry for the workers who organized the Amazon warehouse in Staten Island. And his adventures in space played into the union’s attack on corporate greed. Bezos’s worth had climbed so much from March- to September 2020 that he could have given all 876,000 Amazon employees a $105,000 bonus and still would have retained his pre-pandemic wealth, according to an Oxfam report in 2021.
As Bezos profited mightily during the pandemic, he has sunk millions of dollars into an effort to block the organizing drives in New York and Bessemer, Alabama, where votes are being tabulated in a second union election after the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Amazon intervened illegally in the first election.
Will the victory of the Amazon workers be the spark that deepens the growing militancy in the labor movement? Will Amazon workers play the role of leading the fight for unionization as autoworkers did in the 1930s? Millions of workers certainly hope so.
Newcrossroads.com blogger Gregory N. Heires is a former president of the Metro New York Labor Communications Council. An earlier version of this article appeared in the Jobs for All Newsletter.