Can the labor movement stay hot as the job market cools?


It’s been a first year for the US labor movement, with successful votes for unions’ first Amazon warehouse, first Apple Store, and first Trader Joe’s, Chipotle and REI locations. Most promising for union organizers are victories at nearly 250 Starbucks stores.

Despite last week’s high-profile union defeat at an Amazon warehouse in Albany, NY, the labor movement continues to gain traction this fall. Along with 21 months of strong job gains, the tight labor market has led to an unusual shortage of workers in many sectors over the past year, giving workers more leverage with employers.

“It’s a combination of things that have contributed to this planning wave that we’re seeing, and the pandemic and the post-pandemic economy are a big part of that,” said John Logan, a labor studies professor at San Francisco State University. “It’s opened up an opportunity for unions that didn’t exist before the pandemic.”

There are other measures aimed at boosting enthusiasm for unions this year. National Labor Relations reports a 53 percent year-over-year increase in union election filings over the past 12 months. Meanwhile, more Americans say they approve of labor unions than has been seen since 1965.

“At a time when most institutions, including the Supreme Court, are becoming less and less popular or trusted, the popularity of unions is at its highest in decades,” said David Weil, the Labor Department’s top wage and hour regulator under President Barack Obama. . “We’re definitely seeing a rebound coming out of the pandemic. Working people are more willing to express dissatisfaction.

However, as the economy heads into recession in the coming months, the window for further wins may narrow. Already, job openings have fallen, and some companies — particularly in technology and interest rate-sensitive sectors such as mortgage finance — have ordered freezes and layoffs, fueling fears that the power paradigm in favor of workers may be short-lived.

“Workers have a lot of bargaining power, and that’s fueled a resurgence in the labor movement,” said Michael Strain, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. “Unions are trying to make real permanent inroads during this period. That will change in 2023 and will almost by definition lead to a reduction in workers’ bargaining power.

For now, Atlanta, Joliet, IL. And with last week’s walkouts at Amazon warehouses in San Bernardino, Calif., momentum appears to be accelerating in some areas. Home Depot in Philadelphia could become the company’s first location to unionize next month, and Trader Joe’s workers in New York City will vote on whether to make it the company’s first unionized store in that particular region. Quality assurance testers at Blizzard Albany, a subsidiary of games giant Activision Blizzard, will vote on whether to join the union. The country can also get Only unionized strip clubs in November.

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Labor organizing efforts have also begun at Lowe’s, T-Mobile and Geico.

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It is not clear whether this development will increase the number of union workers. Last year, despite polls showing heightened enthusiasm for organized labor, union membership in the United States fell to 10.3 percent of U.S. workers, after a spike related to the pandemic the previous year.

The challenges for labor go beyond the softening of the labor market, as companies like Amazon and Starbucks have succeeded in combating union efforts with sophisticated anti-union campaigns.

Amazon workers near Albany, NY, vote against the union

Amazon has been a tough nut to crack for unions, with just one union victory at a Staten Island warehouse in April, while organized labor has made inroads across the retail and service sectors. There have been multiple union election successes this year at Starbucks, Apple, REI and Trader Joe’s. Labor experts say it’s easier to unionize employees at those retailers because their workplaces are smaller and less physically spread out than Amazon’s.

Workers at unionized stores are also younger, more educated and politically left-leaning, experts said. Ruth Milkman, a labor sociologist at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, said the rise in union interest among young, college-educated people has been quietly taking shape for years — especially in the media and higher education — but it’s only just. Recently, high-profile efforts at companies such as Starbucks gained national attention.

Those workers are in jobs “that are inferior to what they expect or aspire to,” Milkman said. “It is true that the scale is modest. Yet it is highly significant and highly unprecedented.”

A number of obstacles emerging in the coming months could rob unions of momentum.

For example, if the Republican Do well in next month’s elections, organized labor may face a less favorable environment. Tennessee has a GOP-backed ballot measure that would enshrine a “right-to-work” law in the state constitution that exempts workers from paying dues for union representation. Such measures usually coincide with declines in union membership.

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More significantly, most economists agree that the economy is in the waning days of a tight labor market. Every week, more economists predict a recession in 2023, as the Federal Reserve raises interest rates to control inflation by slowing the economy.

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When employers have more power, it’s easier for them to retaliate against workers who try to organize, said Heidi Schierholz, president of the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank in Washington. She said workers are more motivated to unionize during periods of low unemployment and high job availability. “If there are a lot of jobs available the consequences of taking the risk of unionizing are low,” Schierholz said.

The job market is slowing down, and this may just be the beginning

Recessions and other economic downturns often coincide with declines in union activity and popularity—with some important exceptions, such as the Great Depression. For example, the approval rating of unions in the United States fell to its lowest point in 2009, during the height of unemployment following the Great Recession.

In the 1980s, aggressive interest rate increases by the Federal Reserve led to a prolonged period of high unemployment, leading to a dramatic decline in union membership in the United States.

Labor and employment experts are optimistic that a non-catastrophic economic downturn will not dampen enthusiasm for labor activism and workers’ willingness to demand more.

Weil, the Obama-era labor official, said that previous historic recessions have led to less union activity, but that the current era of labor relations is different from the Great Recession of 2008 and the dot-com bubble of the early 2000s.

“On either side of that recession, we didn’t see the kind of uptick in labor activity that we’re seeing now,” Weil said.

However, an outright recession could lead to a reduction in union efforts, he admits.

“If the economy actually sinks, that’s a different story,” said Thomas Kochan, professor of industrial relations at the MIT Sloan School of Management. “Everybody’s going to be really concerned about job security.”

The Amazon labor union lost a high-stakes union election in Albany on Tuesday in a decisive 406-to-206 defeat. Despite the defeat, workers seeking to unionize Amazon warehouses say they are undeterred.

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They accused Amazon of engaging in an anti-union campaign that prevented “free and fair” elections. Union leaders said they were prevented from organizing in company break rooms during the Albany campaign, which was crucial to the union’s historic Staten Island victory in April.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.

“We are pleased that our team in Albany was able to hear their voices, and that they chose to have a direct relationship with Amazon, because we believe this is the best arrangement for both our employees and customers,” said Kelly Nantel. , an Amazon spokesperson.

The National Labor Relations Board is investigating 27 unfair labor practice charges filed by a union against Amazon in Albany. The latest charge alleges that Amazon suspended a worker after she complained of harassment by anti-union consultants Amazon had hired during the election.

The independent union has faced growing pains as it has tried to expand beyond its initial victories in Staten Island without significant funding, or the staff and legal resources of an established national labor union. The union, which says it has about $100,000 in its budget, is still fighting Amazon for certification and contracts at the 8,300-worker Staten Island warehouse.

Still, there are few signs that labor activity at Amazon is cooling, with various labor unions and unions taking their shots at organizing the nation’s second-largest employer. The Amazon labor union held its first union election on the West Coast last week at a warehouse in Moreno Valley, Calif.

Amazon suspended 50 workers who refused to work after a warehouse fire

Other groups around the country are trying to form independent unions. According to Vince Quiles, 27, a leader of the Home Depot unionization effort in Philadelphia, Philadelphia workers at Home Depot want the company to address deteriorating working conditions due to labor shortages and understaffing.

Home Depot has an open-door policy to ensure employees can bring their concerns to leadership, company spokeswoman Sara Gorman said. Home Depot respects its employees’ right to unionize, but does not believe collective bargaining is the solution to workers’ concerns, she said.

But Quiles cited the efforts of the Amazon union in New York as an inspiration.

“What did I see? [Amazon Labor Union] could have done in Staten Island,” Quiles said. “I thought if they could do it at Amazon with 8,300 workers, we have a shot to do it here with 300 people.”


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