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


It was the first year of the US labor movement, successfully voting for the first unionized Amazon warehouse, the first Apple Store, and the first Trader Joe’s, Chipotle and REI locations. Most promising for union organizers were victories at about 250 Starbucks stores.

The labor movement continues to gain momentum this fall despite a high-profile union defeat at an Amazon warehouse in Albany, New York last week. With 21 months of strong job gains, the labor market has led to unusual labor shortages in many sectors over the past year, giving workers more leverage with employers.

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

There are other objective measures of union enthusiasm this year. The National Labor Relations Board reported a 53 percent year-over-year increase in union election petitions over the past 12 months. Meanwhile, more Americans say they approve of unions, a high not seen since 1965.

“At a time when most institutions, including the Supreme Court, are becoming less and less popular or credible, unions are at their highest level of popularity in decades,” said David Weil, chairman of the Labor Department’s top wage and hour regulator. Under Barack Obama. . “We certainly see anxiety coming out of the pandemic. There is a greater willingness of working people to express their dissatisfaction.”

However, as the economy tilts toward recession in the coming months, the window for securing more wins could narrow. Already, jobs are down, and some companies, particularly in technology and interest-rate-sensitive industries like mortgage financing, have ordered freezes and layoffs, raising fears that the government’s pro-worker paradigm may be short-lived.

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

So far, the momentum appears to be accelerating in certain areas, as last week Amazon’s warehouses in Atlanta, Joliet, Ill. and Trader Joe’s workers in New York will vote on whether to make it the company’s first unionized store in the region. Quality assurance testers at Blizzard Albany, a subsidiary of gaming giant Activision Blizzard, will vote on whether to join the union. A country can also get its own In November, only the united strip club.

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

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It is not clear whether these developments will increase the number of unionized workers. Last year, despite polls showing high enthusiasm for organized labor, union membership in the United States fell to 10.3 percent of U.S. workers, following a surge the year before due to the pandemic.

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

Amazon workers near Albany, New York vote against unionization

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

Union shop workers also tend to be younger, more educated and politically left-leaning, experts say. Ruth Milkman, a labor sociologist at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, says that growing interest in unions among young, college-educated people has been quietly building for years, especially in the media and higher education, but that’s just it. recently gained national attention because of high-profile efforts at companies such as Starbucks.

Those workers are performing “below what they expected or aspired to,” Milkman said. “It is true, the scale is modest. However, it is extremely significant and unprecedented.”

A number of obstacles that could emerge in the coming months could dampen union momentum.

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

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More significantly, most economists agree that the economy is in the midst of easing labor market tensions. Every week, more economists are predicting 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. Workers tend to be more emboldened to unionize during periods of low unemployment and high job availability, he said. “The risk-taking implications for a union are lower if there are a lot of jobs,” Schierholz said.

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

Recessions and other economic downturns often correspond to declines in union activity and popularity, with a few notable exceptions, such as the Great Depression. In the United States, for example, approval ratings for unions fell to their lowest point in 2009, a time of high unemployment following the Great Recession.

Aggressive interest rate hikes by the Federal Reserve in the 1980s led to a prolonged period of high unemployment, which contributed to a sharp decline in union membership in the United States.

Labor and employment experts hope that a non-disastrous economic downturn will not dampen enthusiasm for work activity and workers’ willingness to demand more.

Weil, an Obama-era labor official, said that while previous historic recessions have led to less union activity, 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 those recessions, we didn’t see the kind of increase in labor activity that we’re seeing now,” Weil said.

However, a full-blown recession could lead to a decline in union efforts, they acknowledge.

“If the economy is really slowing down, that’s a different story,” said Thomas Kochan, professor of industrial relations at the MIT Sloan School of Management. “Everyone will be really concerned about job security.”

The Amazon Workers Union lost Tuesday’s union election in Albany by a landslide, 406 to 206. Despite this defeat, workers seeking to unionize Amazon warehouses say they are undaunted.

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

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Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.

“We are pleased that our team in Albany was able to make their voices heard and that they decided to maintain a direct relationship with Amazon, as 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 charges the union filed against Amazon in Albany. A recent lawsuit alleges that Amazon fired an employee after he complained about election harassment by anti-union consultants hired by Amazon.

The independent union faced growing pains as it tried to expand beyond its initial victory in Staten Island without significant funding, or the staff and legal resources of an established national union. The union, which says it has about a few hundred thousand dollars in its budget, is still fighting for certification with Amazon and a contract with 8,300 workers at its Staten Island warehouse.

However, there are few signs that labor activity at Amazon is cooling, as a number of labor organizations and unions voice their opposition to organizing the nation’s second-largest employer. The Amazon Labor Union filed for its first union election on the West Coast last week at a warehouse in California’s Moreno Valley.

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Other groups around the country are trying to form independent unions. Home Depot workers in Philadelphia want the company to address deteriorating working conditions caused by labor shortages and underemployment, said Vince Quiles, 27, of the Home Depot union organizing effort in Philadelphia.

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

But Quiles cited Amazon’s union efforts in New York as an inspiration.

“I saw what [Amazon Labor Union] was able to do in Staten Island,” Quiles said. “I thought, if they can do it with 8,300 Amazon workers, we have a chance to do it with 300 people here.”


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