Senator Bernie Sanders, an Independent from Vermont, left, speaks to Christian Smalls, founder of the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), during an ALU rally in Staten Island borough in New York, US, on Sunday, April 24, 2022.
Victor J. Blue | Bloomberg | Getty Images
After years of declining influence, they are having a resurgence. Employees from across the country are looking for more benefits, pay and safety from their employers as they organize.
Between October 2021 and March of this year, union representation petitions filed in the NLRB increased 57% from the same period a year ago, according to recent data from the US National Labor Relations Board. Unfair labor practice charges increased by 14% over the same period.
More than 250 Starbucks locations have filed petitions, and afterwards a first win late last year, 54 Starbucks have company-owned stores formally organized. Workers at an Amazon warehouse in New York City recently voted to be the second-largest US private employer and join the Amazon Labor Union. Google Fiber Contractors in Kansas City voted to unionize their small office in March, the first workers under the bargaining rights of the one-year-old Alphabet Workers Union.
These efforts are resonating with the broader public. A Gallup poll last September showed 68% of Americans approached labor unions – the highest rate since 71% in 1965.
So why are they becoming popular again?
The Covid-19 pandemic
Experts say the biggest factor was the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The Pandemic was the wakeup call or the catalyst that prompted two perspectives: ‘Is there another way to work and live?’ and the relationship between employers, ”said former NLRB chairman and current Georgetown law professor Mark Pearce. “The vulnerable workers – they weren’t the only ones scared. They were pissed.”
“Covid was everything,” agreed Jason Greer, a labor consultant and former field examiner agent for the NLRB. “A lot of people have said, ‘I see my family members die and my friends die and we have a hard time with our own mortality. But a lot of organizations still expect you to work just as hard or as hard.’
As governments and employers impose new restrictions on the slow pace of spreading the pandemic, and demand spiked for services that let people do more from home, like e-commerce and grocery delivery, employees face new challenges. Retail workers had to enforce mask-wearing and check vaccination status. Delivery and warehouse employees worried that they weren’t equipped with the right safety gear.
“The first months of the pandemic during the activism of the We Tidal Wave,” said Jess Kutch, co-founder and co-executive director of Coworker.org, which organizes efforts on assists. The group saw more use of its website in a three-month period than all its previous years combined. “That was a clear indication that more and more people were wanting to speak out.”
Many of these workers communicated about their struggles through digital channels, which resulted in all communication for natural disposition. “When you track the push from Apple, the Google within the push, I think a lot of it has to do with embedding digital channels like Slack,” Greer said. “It’s been a perfect storm for people with more access to each other’s tools in such an environment.”
At the same time, buying patterns in massive disruptions are driving companies like Amazon and Google, who are equipped to meet the demands of a society forced to stay home. Experts said that in many cases, executive salaries increased while employees’ wages stayed the same.
In an example of an insensitive exec that went viral, Better.com CEO Vishal Garg laid off 900 employees, or about 9% of the company’s staff, over a brash Zoom video conversation in early December.
A supportive political environment
Organizers are also taking advantage of the supportive political environment they’ve seen in many.
President Joe Biden has been voted “the most pro-union president ever” and has been very vocal about his support for the PRO Act, which aims to make the unionization process easier and less bureaucratic.
Early in his term, Biden revamped the National Labor Relations Board, firing former President Donald Trump’s NLRB general counsel Peter Robb shortly after taking office. Biden then installed the new General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo, a former union attorney who has been using her enforcement powers pretty extensively.
“It’s significant that Biden’s first action was to do so. He sent a message to Labor that the NLRB, even with its weaknesses, should not be dismantled from within,” Pearce said.
Biden has taken aim at captive audience meetings, a common practice used by companies to reject union efforts. The NLRB settlement with Amazon sent a message to other companies and union organizers alike that the NLRB will be aggressive in enforcing violations.
The President met with 39 national labor leaders on Thursday, including Christian Smalls, who heads the Amazon Labor Union, and Laura Garza, a union leader at Starbucks’ New York City Roastery.
Organizing employees on The Media Attention – successful or not – also has a domino effect, experts said. They don’t even need to be successful, said Kutch.
For instance, employees at an Apple retail store in Georgia told CNBC last month they were inspired by Amazon employees who sought to unionize a warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. Derrick Bowles, who is on the Apple Retail Union organizing committee, said he has a “massive amount of respect” for what Bessemer employees have done – even though that union drive has yet to succeed.
In Seattle, Starbucks organizer Sarah Pappin, 31, said she’s been in contact with unionizing Verizon retail workers.
“We all have the same crappy retail jobs between kicks,” Pappin said. “This is the moment where we’ve all realized that it really kind of sucks, so let’s just make one place and prove it.”
In early May, Starbucks said it would be tenured workers for hike wages, new employees for double training and a tipping feature for credit and debit card transactions. However, it said it would offer workers more than 50 company-owned cafes that have voted to unionize.
“We’re seeing social justice combined with worker justice, and it’s not just catching fire but it’s getting results,” Pearce said.
Richard Bensinger, a union organizer with Starbucks Workers United and a former organizing director of the AFL-CIO, said most of the pro-union workers were in their early 20s, prompting him to part with a “Gen U”. According to Gallup data from 2021, young adults ages 18 to 34 approve of a rate of 77%.
See these younger workforces as inspiration for each other’s victories, said experts.
Kutch and Pearce gave the example of the Google Walkout, which she said was “not an important moment for the tech sector but for the history of the labor movement.”
In Nov. In 2018, more than 20 offices around the world are facing an explosive New York Times report detailing the impact of Google Shielded Executives on sexual misconduct, either by keeping them on staff or on amicable departures. Organizers described it as “a workplace culture that’s not working for everyone,” and listed several. California law, while others are incorporated into a settlement with shareholders who have sued the company for its handling of the risks.
It showed that employees could organize a large corporation by way of internal chatter, spreadsheets and emails – in a matter of days, Kutch said, adding that many people saw the images through social media.
“Shouting out in the park about the injustices or holding up a banner in front of a facility has a whole lot more impact when it’s on the internet,” Pearce said.
This report was also contributed by CNBC’s Annie Palmer.