Prior to 2021, labor unions seemed like a relic of the past. Case in point: In 2019, 10.3% of US workers were repped by unions — the lowest since the Bureau of Labor Statistics first conducted the survey in 1983. And it repeated in 2021. But like pretty much everything else in our lives, the COVID-19 pandemic changed things.
As a result, more and more workers have been attempting to unionize. Between October 1, 2021 and March 31, 2022, union representation petitions went up by 57%. Now, employees across industries are saying 'it's time.' And are exploring their union options — including workers from Amazon, Apple — and even Delta. Here’s how this whole thing started.
Labor unions’ long history in the US
Quick reminder on how labor unions work: They’re 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 to 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.
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, drum roll please, labor organizations. And in 1935, President Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Act. Which established 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 in recent decades, union membership has gone down. Fast forward to the early 1980s, when more than 20% of Americans were part of one. And membership has only gone downhill since then.
The reasons? Experts point to the decrease in manufacturing jobs — an industry where union membership has historically been high. As well as right-to-work laws — which give certain employees the choice to join a union (as opposed to being forced to join one).
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: Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics from 2019 shows that nonunion workers make less than union workers (specifically, about 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. Which brings us to…
The recent push for unions
Organized labor efforts at a growing number of companies have been making headlines. Like…
The e-commerce giant has been accused of treating its employees unfairly multiple times. Some examples: limiting bathroom breaks and firing two employees who spoke out against its climate change and labor policies. In April, workers at a Staten Island, NY facility voted to unionize — making it the first union in the tech giant's history. That month, another facility in the borough also took up the issue. But ultimately, workers there voted against forming a union.
But that's not all: In March, a re-vote began for an Alabama Amazon facility also looking to create a union. Back in 2021, Amazon was successful at striking down a union there. Which was a major defeat to labor advocates. But a US labor board found that Amazon tried to pressure workers to vote against union plans. So AL workers got another chance to cast their vote. As of March 31, the vote was too close to call. And with hundreds of contested ballots, it could be months before a decision is announced.
In December, employees at a Starbucks in Buffalo, NY checked 'yes' to forming the chain's first union. Which was a welcome sigh of relief to workers who made complaints about the coffee shop's wages and working conditions. Starbucks has been fighting workers’ attempts to unionize. (Think: anti-union meetings and appeals to union rulings.) But since Buffalo's big win last year, at least 16 stores have followed suit. And petitions have been filed in a number of places, including in California, Kansas, and…
Arizona: In February, Starbucks workers in Mesa, AZ brewed up another union victory. And in April, the National Labor Relations Board sued Starbucks for allegedly retaliating against employees for trying to organize a union. TBD what comes of the lawsuit.
Another one. Its employees in Atlanta became the first to file for unionization for better pay and benefits. It's unclear when a vote could happen. Workers in NYC are also collecting signatures to file for similar reasons. Either of these stores could be a first for Apple in the US. Some Apple stores have since upped pay for retail workers. But in some cases, they were nominal — between 2% and 10%, Bloomberg reported.
Flight attendants at Delta Airlines are pushing their rights to new heights. While flight attendants at other major airlines are unionized, those at Delta aren’t. As they’ve begun pushing for organization, Delta announced a new policy change. Beginning June 2, attendants will be paid half their hourly rate during boarding (aka, the 30 to 50 minutes when passengers are filing onto the aircraft and getting settled). Before, flight attendants’ clocks started when the cabin doors closed. TBD if the change affects the union drive.
While many businesses have wanted unions for a long time, COVID-19 gave some the push they needed. Here’s why…
How COVID-19 has amplified calls for organized labor
A variety of issues caused strikes throughout the pandemic — including the need for better wages (think: historic inflation) and safety protocols when dealing with COVID-19. This all had a major impact on…
The job market. Which is still recovering from the pandemic. At the end of 2021, job openings hit a record high — but employers are still struggling to find workers. An analysis from the National Women’s Law Center found that more than 1.1 million women have left the workforce since February 2020. (Psst...learn more about the shecession here.) Now, union workers are realizing they can’t be easily replaced, giving them the upper hand 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. All while the nation's inflation climbed. 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’s previously publicly supported the Amazon workers union drive in both Alabama and New York. As well as John Deere union workers who went on strike in October.
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 61% 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 as more unions successfully form, more employees are asking, ‘do I deserve more?’
Updated on May 2 to reflect the second Staten Island Amazon facility vote.
Updated on April 26 to include the latest successfully formed unions and efforts of the Biden admin.
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