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U.S.’ worker shortage giving unions a boost

In-demand employees gain leverage by LAUREN KAORI GURLEY THE WASHINGTON POST | August 31, 2022 at 2:41 a.m.
FILE - In this image from video, Amazon workers line up outside the company's Staten Island warehouse to vote on unionization, March 25, 2022, in New York. Amazon workers in Staten Island voted to unionize, marking the first successful U.S. organizing effort in the retail giant’s history. But a second Staten Island warehouse rejected a union bid about a month later. (AP Photo/Robert Bumsted, File)

A red-hot labor market that has afforded workers more bargaining power with employers is fueling a string of recent union victories at high-profile U.S. companies.

Workers have voted to unionize for the first time in recent weeks at Trader Joe's and Chipotle. Unions have also made significant inroads at Amazon, Starbucks, Apple and REI -- employers that have long resisted unionization.

Behind these small, but notable, victories is renewed popular support among Americans for the labor movement: Seventy-one percent of Americans approve of unions, matching a 53-year high, according to a Gallup poll released on Tuesday.

Economists say the tight U.S. labor market has allowed workers more leverage to form unions, as well as to demand higher wages and better working conditions.

"Unless the labor market cools off a lot, there's going to continue to be a lot of workers demanding collective bargaining power," said Guy Berger, principal economist at LinkedIn.

Still, even a cooling-off economy would not necessarily undo cultural shifts that have resulted in the rising popularity of unions, particularly among young, college-educated workers.

"Could labor activism be affected by a slowdown? Of course," said Julia Pollak, chief economist at Zip Recruiter. "When people become more nervous about the availability of alternatives, they become less likely to rock the boat. Do I think this moment has caused permanent shifts? Certainly. Some of this will last."

Despite a 56% increase in filings for union elections nationwide during the first three quarters of the 2022 fiscal year, labor experts say that many of these victories at major employers are mostly symbolic, covering a mere sliver of these companies' enormous workforces.

Meanwhile, although support for unions has been steadily increasing since the pandemic, union membership in the United States declined last year; only 1 in 10 American workers is a union member.

"There's still a huge disconnect between this recent organizing wave and long-term national membership trends," said John Logan, a labor studies professor at San Francisco State University. "The real significance of these campaigns is not in the number of new members, which is pretty meaningless, but the excitement, optimism and inspiration they generate in some sections of the labor force -- especially among young, politicized, educated workers in the low-wage service sector."

Atulya Dora-Laskey, a 23-year-old crew member at a Chipotle in Lansing, Mich., that voted to unionize last week, said members of his generation support unions because of how "dire" their working conditions have gotten.

"This felt like an impossible task at the beginning, and having gotten this far is quite incredible," Dora-Laskey said. "We are up against a lot of opposing forces, and at the same time, we are realizing there are more workers than there are people who are exploiting us. That's the ultimate advantage. Through unionizing, we've seen that power."

But all of the major companies that employ workers trying to organize have come out against unionization, and some haven't moved to bargain collectively with unions after victories have been declared.

In April, Amazon warehouse workers in Staten Island voted to join an independent labor union, the first union victory at the nation's second-largest employer. The victory occurred at a warehouse with roughly 5,000 employees. Still, Amazon has refused to recognize the union and appealed the election results, and the case could be held up in court for months.

Last week, the Michigan Chipotle location with 16 eligible union members voted to unionize with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. But Chipotle has roughly 3,000 locations nationwide, and that victory is largely irrelevant unless it spreads.

Workers at Starbucks have won the most ground, successfully unionizing more than 230 locations and thousands of workers since late 2021, accounting for 31% of union election victories in the first half of 2022. But that's still barely 2% of the coffee chain's more than 10,000 U.S. locations.

Starbucks Corp. and its CEO Howard Schultz have led a sophisticated campaign to derail the union drive, insisting that bargaining take place store-by-store, an enormous burden to the union, and arguing earlier this month that all mail-in elections should be suspended temporarily because of alleged misconduct by a National Labor Relations Board official.

The union says the company has fired more than 75 union organizers. The NLRB accused Starbucks this month of illegally withholding raises and benefits from union workers to discourage union organizing, and a judge ordered Starbucks to reinstate seven fired union organizers at a store in Memphis.

Tens of thousands of more workers have voted to join unions this year than in 2021, according to Bloomberg Law. Unions won 541 elections in the first half of 2022, covering more than 43,150 workers, to mark the highest number of union victories in close to 20 years.

But union membership continues to decline in the United States, despite victories that have attracted national publicity. It remains unclear whether the surge in union election petitions will undo that trend this year.

And the Gallup poll that found record support for unions also found that most Americans who aren't in a union say they are "not interested at all" in joining one.

"If this wave of organizing is to translate into millions of new members, we need much stronger legal protection for the right to choose a union," said Logan. "These kinds of campaigns at Amazon and Starbucks are also key to that. You'll never get reform unless the public understands the issues, cares about them and believes they have a stake in the outcome."

Editor's note: Inc. founder and executive chairman Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.

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