The Momentum Is on Labor’s Side Right Now
The US labor movement has a long way to go to reverse its decades of stagnation and decline. But it’s undeniable that things are currently looking up for unions — particularly in rank-and-file workers’ interest in organizing.
Is the current labor uptick just more hype than reality? Numerous articles have recently made this case, pointing to the continued decline in union density in 2022. This skepticism also appears to be the prevailing view among most national union leaders. Though rarely stated publicly, labor’s continued routinism suggests that few people up top see our moment as particularly novel or urgent.
But contrary to these skeptics, there is compelling data indicating that things really are changing — and, therefore, that unions should immediately make a major turn to new organizing.
Consider, for instance, the statewide 2018 educators’ strikes, which were largely begun over viral rank-and-file Facebook groups. This was the first US strike wave since the 1970s, impacting millions of students and involving hundreds of thousands of school workers. Strike activity in 2018 rose to its highest peak since the mid-1980s, and it remained high in 2019 as the wave spread to blue cities like Los Angeles and Chicago. The qualitative shift was even more significant: unlike in the Reagan era, the red-state revolt consisted of work stoppages that were mostly illegal, statewide in scope, offensive in their demands, and generally victorious in their outcomes.
Union membership numbers present a grimmer picture. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 273,000 workers joined unions last year. Yet because total employment rose at a faster rate, union density fell from 10.3 to 10.1 percent from 2021 to 2022. Clearly, we are not currently in an upsurge analogous to the 1930s. As exciting as recent campaigns may be, we should be sober about their very real limitations.
Dwelling only on the continued decline of union density, however, misses the forest for the trees. One of the reasons why recent worker-driven campaigns are so qualitatively important is that they have won union elections at some of the largest corporations in the world. Amazon’s 1.1 million employees, for example, constitute the country’s second-largest workforce, and Starbucks’s workforce is the eighth largest.
Winning elections at these types of firms is a major development that is not captured by membership rolls alone. National unions have for decades generally avoided pushing for union elections at such large companies, believing not unreasonably that they were simply too powerful to defeat — at least under our current, threadbare, and barely enforced labor laws. As such, the vast majority of years since the Fortune 500 was established in 1955 have witnessed zero, or at most one, union drives at the nonunion companies on the list. In contrast, 2021 saw three such drives and 2022 saw eight.
Given labor’s overall risk aversion, it is not surprising that a majority of those organizing efforts were instances of what I call DIY Unionism — strikes and union drives that are initiated by self-organized workers and/or in which workers take on key responsibilities traditionally reserved for union staff.
Labor’s opponents are well aware of this increase in worker-to-worker organizing. In a 2022 report, the notorious union-busting firm Littler Mendelson sounded the alarm:
There has been a shift in how people are organizing together to petition for representation. What was once a top-down approach, whereby the union would seek out a group of individuals, has flipped entirely. Now, individuals are banding together to form grassroots organizing movements where individual employees are the ones to invite the labor organization to assist them in their pursuit to be represented.
To be sure, workers at Amazon, Starbucks, Apple, Google, and other megacorporations are still a long way away from winning a first contract. That will likely take many years, more intervention from state actors, and greater resources from established unions toward boosting, and defending, new organizing. But it is a major historical development that unionizing the US private sector’s biggest players no longer seems like a distant fantasy.
The fact that these recent drives have won elections against such economic heavyweights helps explain why news coverage of unions shot up in 2022 — as does the fact that media outlets have become one of labor’s most dynamic growth areas.
Increased publicity about David versus Goliath workplace organizing, and negative publicity about union busting, is bad news for corporate America. Stories of ordinary workers taking on billionaire CEOs tend to spur copycat attempts. And coverage of illegal (or morally reprehensible) union busting tarnishes company brands, while increasing pressure on elected officials to defend and enforce labor law.
When it comes to fomenting today’s pro-union zeitgeist, the growth of pro-union sentiment over social media is no less significant. To cite just a few examples: Antiwork — a misleadingly named Reddit group focused on exposing bad working conditions and promoting unionization — shot up from eighty thousand members in early 2020 to 2.3 million members by late 2022. The labor-focused media outlet More Perfect Union has received 150 million views on its YouTube and TikTok videos. And videos of Starbucks workers walking out in response to illegal firings now regularly go viral, racking up millions of views and exposing the hypocrisy of a nominally progressive corporation. Starbucks’s vice president of partner resources thus recently admitted that she had to turn off social media because it “has been very disheartening. And yet perception is reality in some way shape or form.”
Media attention on its own will not turn things around for unions, but it is nevertheless critical for keeping up momentum and bringing “the labor question” back to the center of US politics. Millions of workers are finally beginning to see that nonunion jobs can become union jobs — and that they personally could play a role in making that happen. No less important, coverage of recent union drives among white-collar and (largely female) pink-collar care workers has undercut the still-common myth that unions are just for white men in hard industry. Multiple worker-organizer interviewees explained to me that the first thing they had to do was disabuse themselves and their colleagues of the assumption, to quote a New York Times tech worker named Vicki, that “unions are just for coal miners or something — not for us.”
Google analytics allows us to measure the increase in search queries last year asking the question: “How do I form a union?” The following graph captures a surge in bottom-up unionization interest, particularly in the wake of the highly publicized union win at Amazon’s JFK8 warehouse on Staten Island. Today’s active interest in unionization constitutes a major contextual difference from the 1990s and 2000s, when labor’s halting turn to new organizing stumbled over the high staff resources required to spark workers to unionize.
Qualitative data also indicates that there has been an increase in individual workers directly reaching out to unions asking them to organize them — what unions usually call “hot shops.” To quote a cannabis-industry-worker-turned-Teamsters-organizer in Illinois, “these workers are reaching out to us for help, so that’s unusual. It used to be we were seeking them out and now they’re coming to us. Our phones are ringing constantly with workers who want protection, higher wages, better benefits and accountability from these companies.”
Put simply: despite the immense power of the forces arrayed against them, rank-and-file organizers today are continuing to take big risks to win power and democracy at work. Unions should follow their lead.