Nationwide Surge in Union Organizing and High Bipartisan Public Support for Labor Unions Could Be Key to Improved Working Conditions for Employees
Over the last year, union organizing efforts at some of the biggest and most powerful companies in the US have made headlines. Workers at Amazon, Starbucks, and Apple, to name a few, have started successful union organizing efforts. More than 250 Starbucks locations filed petitions, and to date, 54 Starbucks stores have formally organized. Workers at an Amazon warehouse in New York City recently voted to form the first union at the second-largest U.S. private employer and join the Amazon Labor Union. Google Fiber contractors in Kansas City successfully voted to unionize in March, becoming the first workers with bargaining rights under the one year-old Alphabet Workers Union. And an Apple Store in Maryland recently voted to unionize as well.
The first half of 2022 saw a spike in worker union petitioning. According to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), during the first six months of Fiscal Year 2022 (October 1–March 31), union representation petitions filed at the NLRB increased 57%—up to 1,174 from 748 during the first half of FY2021.
Public Support of Labor Unions Near All Time High
Research shows widespread support for labor unions among the public. One survey found that a majority (59%) of workers across the U.S. and across all sectors say they support increased unionization in their own workplaces. Another poll conducted last September showed 68% percent of Americans approve of labor unions — the highest rate since 71% approval rating in 1965. And this support from the public does not break down into a partisan political issue. The polls show bipartisan support for increased unionization at work.
Workers’ calls for more representation are not limited to core employee demands related to wages, hours and working conditions. Many workers want a say on a range of issues such as the use of AI systems, company mission, and structural changes within the workplace, empowering worker representatives to work with management directly on issues for dispute resolution.
Experts attribute the rise in popularity of unions and the increase in organizing efforts to three main things: the COVID pandemic; a strong labor market; and contagious success spurred by social media.
The pandemic exposes high risk, poor working conditions for frontline workers
Demand for more union representation, which had been rising from the 1970s up through 2017, was reinforced by the pandemic. Conditions for front-line workers during the height of the COVID lockdowns received a lot of public attention. The public’s scrutiny of working conditions for front-line workers and has grown even more intense given the tight labor market that has followed.
Tight Labor Market Gives Workers More Options
Many workers feel more secure in their ability to raise concerns and advocate for change at work, including union organizing efforts, in a job market that has roughly two open positions for each worker. The bigger question is whether this current trend will lead to fundamental positive change in the relations between workers and management.
Organizing Mixed with Social Media is Contagious
Workers can now easily connect with each other over cell phones and social media platforms. Digital tools and social media platforms give workers a way to support each other across industries and across the country, sharing organizing strategies and information, spurring more efforts to organize.
Lasting Change Requires All of Us
But more union organizing drives do not automatically mean better working conditions. The history of labor movements shows that they are cyclical. In tighter labor markets where workers face less risk about losing jobs, there is a greater union push. But that can only go so far.
Improvements in working conditions for employees will take more than support from politicians and an increased number of NLRB petitions. Experts note that Companies are more sensitive to what customers think, and they will likely be concerned about polling data that shows more sympathy for unions, and so be more hesitant to be perceived as anti-union. Customers will need to apply more pressure for the current momentum to translate into new legislation and protections for workers. In other words, employees can achieve workplace improvements with sustained public support.
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