Despite steady decline in membership for most of the past forty years, unions may be on the verge of a comeback, spurred by stagnant wages, social issues, and the pandemic.
A union vote at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama and the announcement of a new union at Google have brought renewed media attention to a recent surge in union organizing.
Union organizing has been ongoing for several years in technology and service industries, and even academic institutions, where labor organizing has previously been taboo. Decades of stagnant wages may have given renewed impetus to this market approach to increasing pay and benefits. The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly given the movement added momentum as workers confronted working conditions with inadequate personal protective equipment and social distancing.
Prior to this resurgence, union memberships had been declining for forty years – a decline that coincided with the loss of manufacturing jobs, where union density was highest, and other changes in the US economy.
Unions, which are organizations that negotiate with employers for labor and wage conditions on behalf of employees, are typically announced after a majority of employees (50% plus one) vote in support of unionization. Once approved, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), an independent federal agency tasked with enforcing the National Labor Relations Act, then mediates any issues that may arise during union-employer labor contract negotiations, which typically include wage increases.
After dropping to a historically low 48% during the Great Recession, public approval of unions has returned to pre-Recession levels, with a Gallup poll reporting a 65% approval rate in 2020.
Since Gallup began monitoring public support of unions in 1936, it has found that support typically dips when the economy is weak. As the economy recovers, support also recovers. This time around, the increased support coincided with greater acknowledgement of income and wealth inequalities resulting from wage stagnation and an explosive increase in executive salaries. Younger generations joining the workforce are providing the largest pool of new union recruits: 76% of new union membership in 2017 was attributed to workers under 35.
In the political arena, President Biden has voiced his intention to be a “pro-union president”, despite union members’ division during the 2020 election. His appointment for Secretary of Labor, former mayor of Boston Marty Walsh (D), is the first union leader to run the department in over four decades.
These factors suggest a shifting landscape that may produce a union comeback – and provide workers with a needed voice.
Organizing at Google and Amazon
Employees at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama voted in March on whether or not to unionize as a part of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU). While the organizing effort failed to win enough votes, employees in support of unionization cited exhausting productivity goals, a lack of job security, and slowness to provide pandemic-related protections as part of their reasons for wanting to unionize.
Amazon has previously responded to public pressure and criticism of its employees’ wellbeing by raising its minimum wage to $15 for all hourly employees in 2018. The federal minimum wage – and the minimum in Alabama – is $7.25 an hour. It has not been raised in more than 10 years.
While Amazon’s $15 minimum wage has been considered reasonable compared to the federal minimum wage, Josh Brewer, the RWDSU lead organizer for the Bessemer Amazon union effort, has pointed to a higher minimum, $19 to $20 an hour, for unionized warehouses in Birmingham and Bessemer.
At Google, more than 200 workers announced in January the formation of the Alphabet Workers Union (AWU). It is the latest push for unionization in the technology industry by the Communication Workers of America (CWA).
The AWU differs from the more traditional union drive at Amazon in that it formed a union without seeking an employee majority vote. For this reason, the union does not satisfy the requirements for pursuing contract negotiations via the National Labor Relations Board. The union can still, however, file complaints for labor law violations.
Instead, the AWU has stated that its purpose is to advocate for employee protection and to present a formal stance on the direction of the company, especially when it comes to concerns over ethics in technology. “There is massive power that has been concentrated at the executive level,” Alan Morales, a Google engineer and union member, told NPR. “As a tech employee, it’s a reasonable ask to ensure that this labor is being used for something positive that makes the world a better place.”
The union has already won a settlement with Google that allows workers to discuss pay and working conditions without fear of retaliation from the company.
The CWA tech union initiative that helped the AWU organize, called CODE-CWA (Campaign to Organize Digital Employees), also resulted in a successful union campaign at Glitch, a small but influential software company whose employees became the first to approve unionization and win collective bargaining.
The union at Glitch negotiated a labor contract that did not include wage increases. Instead, it secured certain labor protections for employees, such as grievance and arbitration procedures and severance pay. The success of the union campaign at Glitch has paved the way for discussion about what unions can do for the tech industry, which mostly consists of well-paying jobs.
Recent Union Efforts Across Industries
Beyond the tech industry, union efforts have arisen in several other industries that have not previously seen widespread organizing.
The digital media industry experienced a wave of unionizing that began at the now-shuttered Gawker Media in 2015 and has since spread to 60 media outlets, including HuffPost, the Guardian, and, most recently, Medium.
Reasons for organizing have included generally low pay and workplace instability that has resulted in mass layoffs at many digital newsrooms. “This is a turbulent time in our industry, and we’ve seen that our company and our management can only do so much to protect us from the broader economic forces shrinking the media landscape,” Albert Samaha, an investigative reporter for Buzzfeed, told CNN. After Buzzfeed laid off 15% of its staff in 2019, its editorial team announced union organization.
In the ski industry, patrollers have also seen increased calls for unionizing across several resorts. While some patrol unions have existed since the late 1970s and 80s, the new trend in organizing has been most prevalent at Vail Resorts, which has expanded its portfolio and announced lucrative profits. In 2019, Vail’s CEO compensation totaled $3.6 million while the average ski patroller would earn about $34,000 if the job was year-round rather than seasonal.
Successful unionization efforts at Stevens Pass and Park City, both Vail properties, have preceded a union vote happening now at Keystone and have since progressed into negotiations for a labor contract. These negotiations at Stevens Pass and Park City address wage increases, disability insurance for seasonal workers, and regular sick leave. So far, negotiations have been slow to progress.
Unionizing efforts for food and drink industry workers are underway, especially in craft breweries, an industry sector that has previously been impervious to labor organizing. “Things are building off each other in a way because we’re experiencing a lot of pressures that weren’t there,” Saru Jayaraman, president and cofounder of restaurant worker advocacy group Restaurant Opportunities Centers United told Eater. “High levels of inequality, the mortgage crisis, increased profiles of sexual harassment and racial discrimination — all are creating the ability for workers to stand up.”
In 2020, 62 workers at Anchor Brewing Company in San Francisco, California formed a union with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and ratified a three-year labor contract that included wage increases, paid lunch breaks, and time and a half pay for work done on company-recognized holidays.
Low wages and rising costs of living have prompted union efforts among graduate student teaching assistants at several universities across the country. Graduate student workers face unique barriers in the consideration of labor: while graduate students make up 21% of teaching positions at academic institutions, they are paid significantly less than faculty members and most receive some extent of tuition remission.
At Columbia University, a vote to unionize graduate student workers was successful in 2016. A labor contract has not yet been formalized despite reaching an agreement to begin negotiations in 2018, prompting the graduate student union to organize a labor strike in 2021.
Despite challenges, the future of union organizing in higher education was recently bolstered when the National Labor Relations Board announced the formal withdrawal of a Trump administration proposal to invalidate graduate student workers’ employee status.
As the organizing activities in these industries suggest, union creation can be a long, slow process and unions’ impact can be similarly slow to materialize should there be sufficient opposition. But in lieu of federal action on the minimum wage and other worker protections, unions may be the best option available to many of the nation’s workers. Additionally, pursuing unionization and collective bargaining allows employees to bring attention to labor issues that they encounter in the workplace. This attention can still have an impact even if sufficient union votes are not secured.
Wages and Labor: Advocates Call for Paid Student Internships
The discussion of fair labor practices has also extended to student internships.
The debate over internships and payment has mainly centered around the fact that students and entry-level candidates, especially those from marginalized communities, often cannot afford to participate in internships without pay.
In 2017, the nonprofit Pay Our Interns published a report that highlighted which members of Congress offered paid internships and which did not. A year later, it noted both a doubling of paid internships for Senate Democrats and an increase in paid positions for Senate Republicans. The organization also helped to secure $13.8 million in funding for a Congressional internship program.
In 2021, the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced its first ever paid internship opportunity for undergraduate and graduate students. Internship compensation is being funded by a $5 million gift from philanthropist Adrienne Arsht, who has previously made large donations to the arts.
Limitations and Considerations
Employers’ anti-union efforts have had a significant effect on union organization efforts. In a study from the Economic Policy Institute on NLRB union elections from 2016 to 2017, unfair labor practice charges were filed against employers in 4 out of 10 elections. Alleged violations included firing workers involved with union activity, engaging in surveillance activities, and harassing employees. Researchers also found that employers spend about $340 million annually on “union avoidance” efforts.
Even after employees vote to unionize, labor contract negotiations can be a long, drawn out process, meaning employees may not see any benefits from unionization for years after passing a union vote.
Unions must also reckon with public wariness that stems from well-publicized instances of corruption. In 2018, the Detroit Free Press reported on U.S. Department of Labor documents that discovered embezzlement at more than 300 union locations. While embezzlement occurs in the private sector, nonprofit organizations, and religious organizations alike, cases of union embezzlement appear to take a heavier toll on the political and social image of unions.
“Scandals just reinforce stereotypes about unions,” Andy Dunbar, a union steward for electricians, told the Detroit Free Press. “I think the public has a perception that they’re all greedy mobsters and these things reinforce stereotypes that there’s corruption. It’s counterproductive. We need to focus on important issues that support our members, like fair wages as the cost of living goes up.”
As unions seek to adapt to the needs of modern workers, how they address past shortcomings and current challenges – both internal and external – can serve as indicators for the long-term success of organized labor.
Potential for More Progress
While unions have a long way to go to increase membership and become commonplace in newer industries, there are signs that the landscape may be changing in their favor.
The next four years under Biden will be crucial for union organizers. The recent confirmation of former union leader Marty Walsh as Secretary of Labor has been viewed as a win for unions in the country. Walsh’s department and the greater administration will be tasked with labor issues that have taken center stage, such as the federal minimum wage, the gig economy, and the economic impact of the pandemic.
While the high profile Amazon vote is a setback for Amazon workers and the union movement, its full impact may yet be a net positive given the attention it garnered.
For new unions that have been successfully established, the next step is to negotiate labor contracts with employers. The results of these negotiations, and the potential benefits to employees, will provide insight into just how impactful unions can be when it comes to improving working conditions, advancing workers’ rights, and strengthening their voice in company decision-making.
Coworker.org: Innovation in Organizing
Founded by Michelle Miller and Jess Kutch, Coworker.org is a digital platform that allows workers across all industries to workshop labor solutions. It is a space for employees to gather information, share data, and spearhead ideas to improve their workplaces.
The platform has facilitated successful worker-led workplace initiatives such as identifying and resolving a software error to avoid back-to-back opening and closing shifts for Starbucks employees and development of an in-app tipping feature for Uber drivers.
The platform’s current projects include:
- A campaign on behalf of drag performers in San Francisco to get clubs to pay, at a minimum, a $40 flat booking fee to all performers
- Partnerships with media organizations to gather information from workers at companies like Starbucks, Apple, and American Airlines about third-party benefits administrators and their effectiveness in helping workers to access benefits like workers’ comp.
- Support for Rylinda Rhodes, a former Comcast call center employee, in her campaign against sexual harassment in call centers; Rhodes received a Wayfinder Fellowship and funding from the TimesUp Legal Fund.
- The launch of the Solidarity Fund, a crowdfunded mutual aid nonprofit set up to support workers in the tech industry engaged in workplace organizing
Problem Addressed: Income & Wealth Inequality
Written by Anna Luo
Published on April 21, 2021
Feature image: Photo by Kindel Media from Pexels
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