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The beginning of the Biden administration might have given unions hope of a resurgence. But two years in, the signs are mixed.
In one sense, unions seem like they are having a moment in the United States. They found an ally when the Biden administration advanced union priorities on infrastructure and environmental policy, as well as administrative law. The U.S. has also seen an uptick in strikes and high-profile union organizing campaigns at brand names like Amazon and Starbucks.
At the same time, unions saw some setbacks. The Biden administration was at odds with rank-and-file unionized railroad workers over their desire to strike over scheduling and sick time policy. Congress officially passed a law implementing the contract that several unions’ membership did not agree to, saying the disruption to the national economy would be too great.
And thanks to narrow margins Democrats had in Congress, major reforms to union law never arrived and are now dead on arrival with a Republican majority in the House of Representatives. This is in part because even though union leadership is allied with Democrats, most union households in some Rust Belt states did not support Joe Biden in the 2020 election.
America has 14 million union workers. Is this the dawn of a movement remaking and revitalizing itself? Or is the union movement seeing some high-profile PR victories amid a larger state of decline?
Some union members split from leadership
Democrats are, on the whole, still seen as the party of labor. But recently, electoral politics and a near-railroad strike have tested the party’s relationships to unions, complicating a once-airtight alliance.
Though the number of unionized workers has declined over recent decades, roughly 1 in 6 people in the United States either belong to a union or live in a household with someone who does, according to Gallup polling, and unions’ ability to organize employees and donate to campaigns makes them influential in politics.
While union officials and their organizations still overwhelmingly support the Democratic Party, some members have voted for Donald Trump in surprising numbers. In 2020, a majority of union households backed Trump over Biden in the key blue-collar swing states of Ohio and Pennsylvania, according to exit polls, while union households in Michigan and Wisconsin preferred Biden. (Nationally, union households still backed Biden too, with 57 percent favoring him while 40 percent said they preferred Trump.)
Democratic voters, in general, are much more likely than Republicans to view labor unions positively — and politicians like Biden frequently espouse their support. Yet those ties have been tested, most recently when Biden called on Congress to intervene in railroad union negotiations in order to prevent a labor strike.
In his statement announcing the decision, Biden said he is a “proud pro-labor president” who is “reluctant” to override the unions. Yet critics accused Biden of throwing the railroad unions under the bus at a critical moment.
A lack of paid sick leave for rail workers in the proposed union-railroad contract became a particular sticking point that both progressives and some Republicans coalesced around.
“The corporate greed never ends,” tweeted Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). While railroad companies make billions in profit, Sanders said, “rail workers have ZERO guaranteed paid sick days. Congress must stand with rail workers.”
A coalition of Republicans, including Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas), split from their party and joined with Sanders to back an amendment to the deal that would have added paid sick leave, but the amendment did not have enough overall support to pass.
“As a matter of principle, I do not support government intervention to decide terms of employment,” Cruz said in a statement. But since Congress had stepped into negotiations, Cruz said, “I believe the rail workers are making reasonable requests that should be adequately addressed.”
The potential railroad strike was an unusual moment for Washington lawmakers, who do not usually directly intervene in negotiations between unions and management. But the federal government had a unique role to play in the railroad unions’ contract thanks to a 1926 law that gave Congress the right to intervene in negotiations between railroads and unions.
Biden and other Democrats argued it was a necessary move, and the House and Senate easily passed a bill doing so with support from lawmakers in both parties. And the stakes of a railroad strike would have been enormous heading into the holiday season. Railroads transport around 30 percent of all freight in the United States, and a strike would have not only cost the economy an estimated $2 billion a day but also disrupted supply chains, causing ripple effects across the economy.
Who is in a union today?
The union movement as it exists today is a relatively small portion of the workforce. Over a quarter of American workers were employed under a collective bargaining agreement in 1973, according to data collected by Barry Hirsch and David Macpherson. As of 2021, it stands at 11.6 percent with actual union membership at 10.3 percent.
Compared with 2019, the number of workers covered by a union has declined from 16.4 million to 15.8 million.
If the typical union worker is a middle-aged employee in the public sector, much of the new energy and organizing in unions are the private sector or universities, which may be staffed by a younger workforce.
The closer a worker is to the government — and the older they are — the more likely they are to be unionized. About a third of public employees are unionized versus around 6 percent of private sector employees — about half of all employees covered under a union contract are in the public sector, while 16 percent are in manufacturing and 15 percent are in transportation or utilities, according to Economic Policy Institute (EPI) data.
The older age of union workers puts pressure on new organizing to keep numbers stable
As the nature of unionized employment has changed, with public sector and service workers making up a larger and larger portion of unionized workers, the contemporary union movement is almost half female (47 percent according to the EPI) and over a third nonwhite. This reflects the composition of some of the most unionized professions, including teachers, postal workers and other government employees.
Older workers are more likely to be unionized. Just over 14 percent of workers between 45 and 54 are covered by a union contract and 13.6 percent of workers between 55 and 64. By contrast, only 10.7 percent of workers between ages 25 and 34 are covered by a union.
This puts natural pressure on the unionization rate of American workers. New entrants to the labor force are often younger and may work in industries that do not have high rates of unionization. But huge shifts in a single union can easily wash out gains elsewhere. For example, just from 2019 to 2021, the number of members of the Teamsters declined from 1,324,501 to 1,015,775.
The most under-unionized sectors offer opportunity — and peril — for the union movement going forward
Only 8.5 percent of manufacturing workers are covered by a union contract, which is still higher than the relatively paltry union coverage in a far larger sector like retail, where 5 percent of workers are union covered. At least as of 2021, fewer than 2 percent of workers in food service, home of some of the highest-profile recent union battles, work with a union contract.
It’s long been thought that the itinerant nature of food service employment and of the restaurant business has been a barrier to unionization. Workers come and go, and restaurants often go out of business.
For unions, organizing a restaurant or coffee shop can be arduous, forced by American labor law to go location by location, organizing a few dozen workers at most at a time. Compared to a car factory, a newsroom, or, say, an Amazon warehouse, this type of organizing can be arduous.
How the union movement is changing
The labor movement is small and getting smaller, beset by labor laws that put barriers in front of organizing and aggressive employers seeking to block organizing, especially in growing industries or ones that employ vast swathes of American workers. But amid a decline in the number of unionized workers across the country, there’s one area that’s potentially making a comeback: young, progressive and educated workers at universities and in the service industry.
“It’s a real change,” said Aaron Sojourner, a senior researcher at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research. “But still, just like early sparks, it’s not like we’re back to the ‘50s in union density. We’re seeing something like the beginning of that wave.”
In terms of total union elections, the surge in Starbucks unionization has been the most impressive. In the first half of this year, almost a third of the over 600 union elections occurred at Starbucks locations.
“Tiny bargaining units” in major international companies
Starbucks Workers United has organized over 250 locations so far this year. But, according to Bloomberg Law, these units on average had just 27 workers. It would take almost 3,000 Starbucks locations of that size to match the number of unionized workers at the Amazon warehouse in Staten Island that also unionized this year. According to Jake Rosenfeld, a sociologist at Washington University in St. Louis, Starbucks would need 200 more locations to unionize to match a single Amazon plant.
“These are tiny bargaining units,” Rosenfeld said, referring to the Starbucks locations. Amazon, on the other hand — “those are huge facilities, but unlike the auto plants of the mid-20th century, the turnover rates are extraordinarily high.”
It’s long been thought that it’s easier to organize workplaces where workers are more settled, where workers can form long-term relationships and solidarity with each other. Amazon warehouses, for example, have over 100 percent annual turnover. Starbucks, on the other hand, has relatively low turnover for the notoriously grueling food service industry, which may have aided the union’s efforts, according to Casey Moore, an organizer in Buffalo, New York. “You know the co-workers super well, you’re working with the same people in very stressful conditions,” Moore told Grid.
Starbucks and Amazon might be international companies, but a combination of American labor law and strategy tends to favor a location-by-location approach, as union elections can be easier to win among smaller groups of workers.
Organizers at Starbucks and Trader Joe’s both told Grid they and their fellow members frequently talk with workers at other locations and other businesses who are interested in organizing — but the location-by-location approach also makes the campaigns more vulnerable to anti-union pushback by targeting those locations with anti-union messaging, firing workers or even closing specific locations that are involved in organizing. (This kind of retaliation is illegal, but unions have to go through a legal process to get these actions reversed.)
These union campaigns have initiated a massive response from some companies. Starbucks and Trader Joe’s workers have not been able to negotiate a contract with their employers and have encountered resistance to bargaining.
The National Labor Relations Board has repeatedly weighed in on the side of the Starbucks workers, winning an order from a federal judge for the company to rehire fired workers involved in union organizing. In November, a federal labor official filed a complaint alleging a wide range of retaliation against union organizing in Ithaca, New York, including closing one location “because employees of Respondent formed the Union and engaged in concerted activities, and to discourage employees from engaging in these activities,” the complaint said.
“The petitions have slowed a little bit,” said Moore. “A year ago, we had zero unionized Starbucks. We have 15 to 20 filing every month. That’s incredible in the face of what people are going through,” she told Grid, referring to Starbucks anti-union efforts.
College educated — and college — organizing
Another major upsurge in unionization, and another one that could help transform the demographic and social face of the union movement, has been in graduate student organizing. Thousands of MIT graduate students won a union election in April. The United Auto Workers failed to win union elections in manufacturing plants in Tennessee and Mississippi, while winning on the campuses of Harvard University, Columbia University and New York University. UAW members at the University of California are currently on strike, as are UAW member adjuncts at the New School in New York City.
Seventy-one percent of Americans overall support unions, according to a Gallup survey, with virtually the same figure among college graduates.
“What we’re having is a moment of a year or two years of disproportionately young, disproportionately college-educated workers really pushing employers in the knowledge industries and the service sector. If you had called back in 2016-17 and said that [200-plus Starbucks locations] would be organized, that would sound crazy,” Rosenfeld said.
And on the scale of the whole workforce — about 158.5 million — or just the unionized workforce — 14 million — it’s still small.
“It’s sparks of wildfire breaking out rather than a mass firestorm. We’re still just talking about a tiny fraction of the nonunion workers of the country who are involved. It would have to proceed at this pace for decades, it would have to accelerate before it changed the share of workers who are unionized,” said Sojourner.
And that wave could start with politically progressive, largely college-educated workers.
“The problem that Starbucks is going to have,” Moore told Grid, “is that they can try to fire, harass and intimidate all the leaders. … They’re going to have a hard time trying to get rid of everybody. The demographic and type of people they’re hiring are people who want to be involved in this effort.”
Why unions are declining in an environment that’s ripe for workers
This is not the first time there’s been a concentrated push for unionization in food service or excitement about a wave of organizing. What is now known as the Fight for $15 — the campaign for a $15 minimum wage that found itself written into law in some states and cities and into the Democratic platform in 2020 — originated as a 2012 campaign for union recognition and higher wages.
“There was a wave of organizing around fast food, McDonald’s and Burger King and Fight for $15. Those ran into a problem with it being really hard to negotiate or unionize because the employers of record were franchises and they couldn’t build enough power to take on the real economic power, the corporate brand. " Sojourner said.
There’s also a difference in the macroeconomic situation that has tilted the balance of power toward workers. While in 2012 the economy was no longer in recession, growth remained sluggish with GDP expanding some 2 percent and the labor market notably weak. By the end of 2012, unemployment was 8 percent and the economy was creating 181,000 net new jobs per month. Nominal wages were barely rising over 2 percent a year.
The post-covid economy, on the other hand, is, if anything, too hot, with unemployment near record lows, 323,000 new jobs created per month and layoffs lower than their pre-covid levels.
This has created the economic conditions for workers to feel the confidence to take the risk of unionization. At the same time, there’s been a proletarianization of the college-educated, as the expectation that people go to college has expanded in line with financing to pay for it.
And it’s not just food service workers who are looking at today’s economic conditions and seeing the need for a more confrontational approach with management. Unionized employees at the New York Times went on strike to demand protection from high inflation in the form of higher wages.
Labor’s waning political power makes unionization more difficult
Researchers at the Economic Policy Institute, a labor-aligned economic research group, have attributed the fall in private sector unionization not, as many think, to shifts within the economy from employment in manufacturing toward services, but toward a legal and political landscape that has gotten more hostile to unionization.
While the New Deal saw the birth of the federally overseen collective bargaining process with the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), some of it was almost immediately restricted with the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act. Since the 1970s, thanks to the refinement of anti-union techniques by employers, the EPI researchers found that “a dramatically smaller percentage of workers have been successful at forming a union and winning a first contract.”
While workers at Starbucks and Trader Joe’s have been successful at forming unions, actual bargaining has been much harder. Sarah Beth Ryther, a Trader Joe’s employee involved in a successful unionization campaign in Minneapolis, told Grid that the company is rejecting the efforts of the Minneapolis and Hadley, Massachusetts, stores to bargain together. “Starbucks has continued to delay bargaining. They’re refusing to meet with us when we have bargaining committee members meeting over Zoom. They walk out of bargaining. It’s a case of a company desperately trying to stop new organizing and frustrate those who have organized,” Moore said. According to Bloomberg Law, the average number of days it takes for workers to ratify a first contract is 465.
While explicit union-busting tactics like firing workers in retaliation for organizing are against the law, the National Labor Relations Board is only able to look backward and order the company to rehire and pay back wages. “We’ve been filing charges probably every week since this campaign started. There are a massive number of charges that the NLRB haven’t gotten to at this point,” Moore said.
“It’s true that there are legal consequences for breaking labor law and violating employees rights to organize or ignore duty to bargain in good faith, but the NLRA is so weak that the financial consequences through the law are so minor, they’re really negligible,” Sojourner told Grid.
While there are efforts when Democrats are in power to reform labor law to make it more friendly toward unions, they tend to run aground, especially in the 60-vote Senate.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.