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Can Labor Unions Make a Comeback in the US?

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and a workforce shortage, can labor unions make a comeback? We spoke with SIS professor Stephen Silvia to find out.

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Amazon's Staten Island warehouse workers file petition for union election in Brooklyn, New York, on October 25, 2021.

Amazon warehouse workers in Staten Island, New York, made headlines this week after showing they had enough worker interest to hold an election to form a labor union, and workers at some Starbucks' locations in Buffalo, NY, have filed for a union election. Some pundits have dubbed this October "Strike-tober" as tens of thousands of union workers across industries in the US are on strike or close to it. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and a workforce shortage, can unions make a comeback? We spoke with SIS professor Stephen Silvia to find out.

Amazon warehouse workers on Staten Island in New York have taken their first step towards unionization by petitioning to authorize a union vote. What is next for these workers in the unionization process?
Representatives of the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) have petitioned for a recognition election to decide whether the ALU should be certified as the exclusive bargaining agent for employees at Amazon’s facilities in Staten Island, New York. Several steps follow. The National Labor Relations Board regional office reviews the petition to confirm that there are a sufficient number of authorization cards signed by Amazon employees and that the proposed bargaining unit is an appropriate one. Amazon management has an opportunity at this point to challenge several aspects of the petition—Amazon can question the scope of the proposed bargaining unit, the validity of authorization cards, and who is eligible to vote. This can become contentious—particularly at a firm like Amazon—because many employees do not work regular hours. It took over seven weeks for labor and management to come to an agreement over the specifics for the recent vote at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. Before the COVID pandemic, there would then typically be a “campaign” period of up to forty days followed by two days of in-person voting at the workplace. Postal ballots have been used instead in many recent recognition elections, including the Amazon vote in Bessemer, Alabama, which had a 49-day voting period.
What protections is this group hoping to win, and how will unionization affect the status of Amazon workers at other locations?
The workers advocating for a union hope to gain a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) to improve their wages, working conditions, and job security. CBAs also typically include a grievance procedure. Winning an election is just the first step toward getting a CBA; it simply recognizes the union as the employees’ exclusive bargaining agent. Contract negotiations follow, but first-contract negotiations are often difficult. Fewer than half of workplaces have a collective bargaining agreement a year after a successful recognition election, and 30 percent still do not have a contract after three years.
This unionization effort is led by a self-organized, grassroots worker group called the Amazon Labor Union, financed by GoFundMe. How unusual is it to have a labor push like this that is not affiliated with any national union?
It’s rare to have a grassroots organizing campaign like the one at Amazon in Staten Island, but social media have made them more viable and common. In 2018, for example, teachers in states that restrict public-sector bargaining, e.g., Arizona, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and West Virginia, staged a series of high-profile demonstrations and walkouts to protest budget cuts to education spending in what became known as the “Red for Ed” movement (because supporters wore red t-shirts).
A similar unionization effort at Amazon in Alabama failed in April. Is this effort substantially different or more likely to succeed, and if so, how?
The effort to organize Amazon facilities in Staten Island is different in two important respects. First, the ALU is a startup union. In Alabama, an established union—the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), which is a branch of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union—attempted to organize Amazon employees. A startup union has advantages. There can be a special energy and commitment that a large established organization cannot duplicate. It’s also not possible to criticize it as “big labor” only after dues money, which was a statement Amazon repeatedly made about the RWDSU in Alabama. On the other hand, established unions have more experience, personnel, and resources that they can use to organize. Down the road, the ALU could fall short for want of resources or commit a “rookie mistake.” Second, the organizing drive is in New York City, which has one of the highest unionization rates in the country and a culture that is relatively supportive of trade unionism. Both differences suggest that this organizing drive has higher odds of success than the Alabama effort, but it’s important to remember that Amazon management also learned lessons from Alabama and will use them to be even more effective at “union avoidance.”
Nearly 40 workplaces have gone on strike across the nation since August 1, and the US has recently seen a large number of workers resigning from their positions, many of whom are looking for better working conditions. What does this mean for union bargaining power in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and a workforce shortage?
Major events can trigger strikes. Last century, big strike waves broke out after both world wars. Today’s tight labor market has given workers more power than they have had in recent decades, but it’s important not to overstate things. Between 1950 and 1980, there were on average more than 200 major strikes per year, which is more than five times the number of strikes underway. Some strikes today are defensive. For example, a central issue in the John Deere strike is thwarting a management proposal to implement a two-tier wage structure through which new hires would be paid substantially less than current employees. “The Great Resignation,” as it has been called, is particularly telling because it’s a summary judgment of the contemporary work environment. All too many employers in the United States treat their workers so terribly and compensate them so poorly that the response is, to quote the old Johnny Paycheck song, “Take this job and shove it.”
Unions were responsible for vaulting factory workers, especially those in auto manufacturing jobs in the 1950s-70s, into the middle class. Today, income inequality in the US is more pronounced than at any time since World War II. Can unions provide the same boost for service workers that they once provided for manufacturing workers, or are the two types of labor too different?
“Can unions make a comeback?” is a question that I’ve been pondering for years. Service employees can be organized. When most states and the federal government legalized collective bargaining for the public sector in the 1960s, many millions joined unions. The public sector today ranks among the most highly organized parts of the US economy. Organizing is difficult, however. Employers and the consultants they hire now excel at using labor law, slick messaging, implicit promises, and veiled threats to thwart union drives. The fissuring of the workforce with so many services being outsourced, the gig economy, and the general social trend toward increasing individualism makes organizing particularly challenging. Social media offer some hope because they make communication among workers easier, but they alone are unlikely to reverse the downward trend in unionization.
That said, severe inequality during the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century triggered spasms of protest for decades before the great expansion of unionization in the 1930s. To be successful, union leaders also had to change their conceptualization of their movement from a focus on skilled craftspeople to welcoming unskilled industrial workers. This transition was tumultuous and split the labor movement for two decades. In recent years we have had some new spasms of protest in response to our new Gilded Age, like, for example, the Occupy movement and the current resignation wave. Workers are experimenting with new ways to organize, such as worker centers that provide labor services to anyone who asks, but no one has hit on a new formula to reduce the imbalance between workers and employers and to give people a greater voice in their workplace.