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As the United States has transitioned from the COVID-19 pandemic, labor relations has undergone a realignment, and momentum has begun to build for unionization. At least 453,000 workers have participated in strikes this year, with hundreds of thousands actively striking against large industries. The current Kaiser Permanente strike is the biggest healthcare strike in history, with 75,000 workers walking off the job. The United Auto Workers are currently organizing against General Motors, Stellantis, and Ford Motor Company. Other efforts include Hollywood with SAG-AFTRA, and a recent agreement being reached for the writers guild in Hollywood. This past summer, the Teamsters union representing 340,000 UPS workers avoided a strike and reached a favorable contract agreement.
This labor momentum may appear sudden, as union membership reached an all time low in 2022 of 10.1%. So where did this movement originate? The answer may be that the COVID-19 pandemic served as an awakening to many workers in the United States. The COVID stimulus checks provided American workers with a small amount of bargaining power in the wake of the pandemic, allowing some workers to step away from their low wage jobs and search for better employment opportunities.
Throughout the pandemic, corporations saw record profits, while American workers experienced falling household wealth and stagnant wages. Household wealth dropped by $6.5 trillion from the end of 2019 to March 2020. On the other hand, the net worth of America’s billionaires soared by trillions in a similar time period.
Wages have remained stagnant for decades and failed to rise with worker productivity. This extremely evident wealth inequality has helped American workers realize the naturally antagonistic relationship between employers and employees. The growing class consciousness in American workers has manifested in this new American labor movement.
The first steps of this movement were taken during the pandemic by workers such as nurses and teachers. Nurses on the frontlines of the pandemic fought for more PPE, staffing, and pay. Teachers threatened to strike in order to ensure that schools remained closed until proper safety measures could be implemented. Additionally, in 2021, miners at Warrior Met Coal picketed for better wages and benefits in front of BlackRock’s NYC headquarters, as they are the largest shareholder of the mining company. In 2016, the miners previously took pay and benefit cuts voluntarily in order to help the business out of bankruptcy. The workers saw a 6 dollar per hour pay cut, while management saw bonuses of up to $35,000. Striking workers also saw a loss of health care coverage during the strike. In 2019, the mining company saw record profits and the CEO enjoyed a salary of over 4 million dollars. These movements set the example for workers in other industries.
Rising rates of unionization are beneficial for all workers. As unions bargain for better wages and working conditions, employers improve wages and conditions in order to remain competitive and discourage unionization in their own workplaces. Studies find that lifetime union workers make about $1.3 million more dollars than their non-union counterparts. Benefits do not just end at wage increases, since union contracts can also secure better health benefits, paid leave, more medical/family leave, and pensions. Union-provided due process also stops employers from firing employees at will. Fewer workplace accidents and safety violations occur in unionized workplaces as well. Unions also helped to protect workers against layoffs and ensure they received pay if their workplace closed during the pandemic.
President Joe Biden being the first president in U.S. history to join the picket line is exemplary of the rising popularity and approval of unions and labor efforts. A recent poll shows that 67% of Americans approve of unions. This may be down from last year’s 71% approval rating, but this still exceeds the long-term average approval rating of 62%. The belief that unions help rather than hurt the U.S. economy is also on the rise. These numbers show the shifting tides of union support, as well as serving as a predictor that this popularity will continue to rise—or at least remain stable. Positive views on unions also help during contract negotiations, as the respective corporation is placed under more public pressure to meet the demands of the workers.
Biden’s visit to the picket line is even more important when compared to his most formidable political opponent, Donald Trump. Trump visited a non-union auto shop with anti-union interest groups in an invitation-only event during the UAW strike, and acted as if he was speaking to striking workers. Unfortunately, private interest groups are able to influence our politicians. This manifests for example in “Right to Work” bills and legal defense funds, which are harmful to workers and unions. We are left with a government that is antagonistic to the interests of workers. Even last year, when railroad workers threatened to strike for more sick days, the Biden Administration intervened and passed legislation that imposed a contract with no modifications to include the main demand of sick days.
The surge in collective bargaining is followed by increased anti-union action taken by corporations who utilize favorable laws and legislation to prevent union activity, but illegal avenues of union busting are also very common. In fact, employers violate the law in 41.5% of all union election campaigns. Since public support for unions is so high, direct anti-union sentiment is not often utilized by employers; union-busting strategy is, rather, its own industry. Employers spend approximately $433 million on union avoidance consultants. These expenditures are required to be reported by employers in documents for the Department of Labor, but exemptions and limitations ensure that the true scope of these expenditures is obscured.
The main strategy utilized by employers is firing whoever they suspect to be in charge of unionization efforts in the workplace, which is illegal. Starbucks is especially known for this kind of union-busting method. For example, seven workers were fired at a Memphis Starbucks location, and the National Labor Relations Board sought a court order for their reinstatement. There are no penalties for employers who are found guilty of illegally firing employees besides having to compensate and reinstate the respective workers. Closing locations that have workers attempting to unionize is also illegal, but Starbucks has also done this through citing safety concerns. Another illegal strategy utilized by employers is attempting to withhold pay raises and benefits from unionizing workers, which Starbucks has also done. With the option of working from home becoming more popular after the pandemic, office software has been used to spy on employees in order to crack down on unionization efforts. Employers such as Amazon’s Whole Foods have even gone so far as to utilize heat maps to predict which locations of its over 500 locations were at high risk of unionization based on criteria such as turnover rate, employee loyalty, and racial diversity.
Legal avenues of union-busting contain loopholes that allow employers to wear down their workforces. The main way this manifests is through captive audience meetings. This is where a boss hosts mandatory meetings in which employers attempt to demonize labor movements and dissuade employees from voting to unionize. Employers can take disciplinary action against employees who do not attend these meetings, or those who attempt to leave early. These efforts extend to anti-union literature and commercials disseminated by employers. Employees are often met with anti-union propaganda when employers fear unionization.
All of these union-busting strategies are not employed for the express purpose of making workers anti-union, but they are used to sow doubt and fear among workers to make unionization feel like a risk. Despite the popular support for this new American labor movement, the odds are always favoring corporations and private interests. We must be aware of these strategies and be unwavering in our support as labor attempts to claw back power from corporations.
This article was edited by Danielle Barber.