Labor Unions: How They Work and Why There’s An Uptick in Labor Strikes

Published on: Oct 20, 2021fb-roundtwitter-roundemail-round
Union members and community members march in protest against Keolis management (multinational transportation company that operates public transport systems) in October 2021.Getty Images

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, more and more US workers have questioned whether they’re getting enough bang for their buck when it comes to how they’re treated in the workplace. So far, 2021 has been a big year for workers attempting to unionize, as well as going on strike, as they reassess their priorities at work. And while labor unions aren’t anything new, they’re gaining steam as the pandemic rages on.

They Go Waaay Back: The History of Labor Unions in the US

Labor unions are groups of workers that band together on work-related decisions (think: hours, wages, benefits) through collective bargaining. Members pay dues that go towards things like representation, political campaigns, and paying union leaders and staff. Union reps negotiate with employers on their members’ behalf. The idea dates back as far as the 1700s, when printers in New York joined forces to ask for a wage increase. But unions didn’t really pick up steam until after the Civil War, when the US started to industrialize.

Enter: the Industrial Revolution. The uptick in mass production meant more jobs. And an influx of immigrants coming to the US meant more people willing to take on those jobs. These circumstances created a power gap between employees and their bosses, who could get away with paying workers low wages and forcing them to work long hours. But workers started to fight back — through labor organizations. In 1935, President Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Act (aka the Wagner Act), establishing the right to join a union, go on strike, and collectively bargain (though it’s still illegal for federal workers to strike).

In 1954, union membership hit its peak: about one in three Americans were part of one. But union membership has gone down in recent decades. Example: in the early 1980s, more than 20% of Americans were part of one. In 2020, that number dipped to 10.8%. Experts say reasons for the decline include a decrease in manufacturing jobs (an industry where union membership has historically been high) and right-to-work laws (which give certain employees the choice to join a union).

While the numbers may seem low, there are still millions of Americans who are part of one. And unions appear to have an advantage when it comes to pay. In 2019, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics from 2019 shows that nonunion workers make less than union workers (specifically, they earned 81 cents to union workers’ $1). Fast forward to the COVID-19 pandemic, and unions are once again in the spotlight. Especially as workers from all sectors weigh the importance of fair wages, benefits, and work conditions.

COVID-19 and Its Impact on Labor Unions and Strikes

Organized labor has been making headlines this year. Including workers at two companies who have made attempts to unionize. See:

  • Amazon. The ecommerce giant has faced multiple accusations of treating employees unfairly. Some examples: limiting break time to use bathrooms and firing two employees who spoke out against its climate change and labor policies. Earlier this year, warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama cast ballots for or against forming a union. It was the largest union push in the company’s history. And workers thought a union would help combat issues like poor work conditions. In the end, they rejected joining a union. It was seen as a defeat to labor advocates who hoped the AL warehouse would serve as an example for others. Amazon has also been accused of trying to pressure workers to vote against it.

  • Starbucks. A group of workers in Buffalo, New York have been flirting with the idea of unionizing. This summer, they filed petitions to vote on whether to unionize with the National Labor Relations Board. But Starbucks might be making moves to try to stop them. Local news reports say the coffee chain has closed two locations (one temporarily) where workers are trying to unionize – though the company says it’s just a coincidence. And Business Insider says that execs have recently visited stores in the area. Starbucks told the org that it’s routine. It’s not clear if or when a vote to unionize could happen. But if they say ‘aye’ to forming one, it would be the first union under the coffee chain.

Workers picket outside of John Deere Harvester Works facility on October 14, 2021 in East Moline, Illinois.
Getty Images

But the hype hasn’t just been around forming unions. Enter: labor strikes – which date back as far as the 1880s. But there have been a number of them throughout the country this year (we see you, Striketober). Cornell’s Labor Action Tracker found that there’ve been at least 175 union strikes so far this year. That includes a number of big-name companies like John Deere, Kellogg, and Volvo. Plus, Hollywood was about to see a strike with 60,000 production workers – until a deal was averted at the last minute in October.

A variety of issues have caused strikes throughout the pandemic – including better wages (sometimes to reflect inflation or a company’s increased profits) and safeguards over the coronavirus. The president of AFL-CIO – a federation of dozens of unions – told the Washington Post that “the strikes are sending a signal...that employers ignore workers at their peril.” And these workers have gotten leverage to demand more, because of…

  • The job market. Which is still recovering from the pandemic. In recent months, job openings hit a record high – but employers are still struggling to find workers to fill those roles. And analysis from the National Women’s Law Center found that more than 300,000 women left the workforce in September. (Psst...learn more about the shecession here.) Now, union workers are realizing they can’t be easily replaced, giving them the upperhand to get what they want from their bosses.

  • The messaging around essential workers. From health care employees to teachers to factory workers, many union workers have been heralded as heroes throughout the pandemic. These workers risked COVID-19 exposure in the workplace, had to work overtime without additional compensation, and more. Now, these employees are feeling empowered enough to say ‘if we’re heroes, treat us like heroes.’

Union workers and experts are watching to see how labor unions play out under the Biden administration. President Biden has said he intends to be “the most pro-union President leading the most pro-union administration in American history.” He also tapped former Boston Mayor Marty Walsh – a former union leader – to become his labor secretary. In mid-October, Walsh and VP Kamala Harris are expected to announce measures to encourage federal workers to join unions. Meanwhile, Biden has publicly supported the Amazon workers union drive in Alabama, as well as the John Deere employees who went on strike in October. As Bloomberg puts it: “For the first time in awhile, unions feel like Washington is on their side.”


The labor movement has helped give employees a voice, establish higher work standards, and provide economic mobility for the middle class. Pew Research found that more than half of Americans think the decline of union memberships is bad news for the US and workers. But the COVID-19 pandemic has created a spark in organized labor. And now, the question is whether unions can gain their influence back.

Skimm'd by Maria McCallen and Kamini Ramdeen

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