In 2021, unions gained traction following the pandemic despite a steady decline in membership over the preceding years. Union membership peaked in 1979, with the number of members reaching 21 million. Membership has steadily decreased since then with the weakening of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act which legally protects workers’ right to organize, but unions still retain their political importance.
In 2008, unions proved to be instrumental in the election of President Barack Obama as well as his reelection in 2012. They heavily supported the legislative proposal at the time, called the Employee Free Choice Act, which intended to streamline and shorten the process of bringing new members into unions. Obama supported it, but Democrats lacked the broader support to pass the law.
This failure, paired with decreased union membership, may have led union members to switch their support to Republican candidate Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. However, unions crossed the political aisle once more in the 2020 election after current President Joe Biden vowed to be the ““most pro-union president leading the most pro-union administration in American history.”
In April 2021, he organized a task force with the goal of reversing the steady decline in union membership over the years. Their first report, released on February 7, highlighted low union participation in the US government and included nearly 70 recommendations on the instrumental role the government can play in encouraging union growth and protecting workers’ rights to unionize.
The report highlighted how more than 300,000 employees in the federal government are eligible to join a union, but have not, a fact that the government hopes to alter. The more relevant finding confirmed an already widely understood truth: union membership has fallen to 6.1% in 2021 from 16.8% in 1983. This drop reflects a changed attitude towards workers – another concern outlined in the report. More specifically, the Labor Department intends to continue the battle against major corporations who wish to misclassify workers as independent contractors, a trend common, given the gig economy shift in recent years.
This shifting attitude towards workers and their labor also explains the dissatisfaction seen recently that manifested itself in the Great Resignation, a movement among employees, perhaps catalyzed by the pandemic, who quit their jobs en masse beginning in early 2021. This phenomenon is largely due to the changing attitudes of the younger generation, as well as the labor conditions during the coronavirus pandemic. Both of these reasons are also boosting the approval ratings of unions. According to a Gallup poll, 68% of Americans said they were in favor of them in 2021, the highest percentage since 1965.
These approval ratings indicate the resurgence of the labor movement. Thousands of workers at major corporations are unionizing to better their working conditions and increase salaries to more accurately reflect their labor. Workers at companies like John Deere and Kelloggs have gone on extended strikes, while workers at companies like Amazon and Starbucks have filed with the National Labor Relations Board to hold votes to unionize.
As of February 17, 2022, more than 70 Starbucks stores in 20 states filed for union elections. Two out of three stores who filed in Buffalo won the union election already, and will eventually bargain for a contract. In New York City, employees at four Starbucks stores filed petitions to organize with Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union. While this can be seen as progress for workers’ rights, there are 9,000 corporate owned Starbucks locations in the country, so recent events do not yet make a trend.
Starbucks has pushed back against attempts to unionize. Seven Starbucks workers at a store in Memphis were allegedly fired in retaliation for union organizing. Other alleged actions by management include increased corporate management at stores holding union elections, and union avoidance meetings.
The struggle between corporate and workers is the manifestation of increasing frustration with the growing wealth inequality in America. For example, Starbucks reported $4.2 billion in net earnings this past fiscal year and the CEO, Kevin Johnson, received more than $20 million. Starbucks only just increased starting pay for its employees to $15 an hour, before federal officials set the union vote for Buffalo stores. Given the working conditions, and constant danger to their health this past year, Starbucks employees felt underappreciated and overworked.
Ultimately, the question is not whether unions will persist, but if workers can collectively organize well enough to counter corporate power in today’s economy. With the administration’s support behind them, success is a possibility. Only time will tell if the necessary change will occur.
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