Senator Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont, on the left, spoke to Christian Smalls, founder of the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), during an ALU rally in the Staten Island area of New York, USA, on Sunday, April 24, 2022.
Victor J. Blue | Bloomberg | Getty Images
After years of dwindling influence, unions are reviving. Employees of companies across the country are increasingly organizing as a means to demand more compensation, pay and security from their employers.
Between October 2021 and March this year, union petitions submitted to the NLRB increased by 57% compared to the same period a year ago, according to the latest data by the U.S. National Labor Council. Unfair payroll fees increased by 14% over the same period.
More than 250 Starbucks outlets have petitioned, and after making their first profit late last year, 54 stores owned by the company have officially organized. Workers at an Amazon warehouse in New York recently voted to form the first union with the second largest private employer in the United States and join the Amazon Labor Union. Google Fiber executives in Kansas City successfully voted to unite their small office in March, becoming the first contract workers within the one-year Alphabet Workers’ Union.
These efforts resonate with the general public. Gallup questionnaire conducted last September showed that 68% of Americans approve of unions – the highest percentage of 71% in 1965.
So why are unions becoming popular again?
Experts say the biggest factor is the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The pandemic was a wake-up call or a catalyst that sparked two points: ‘Is there another way to work and live?’ And the relationship between employers and workers,” said Mark Pierce, former NLRB chairman and current Georgetown law professor. “Vulnerable workers – they were not only scared but angry.”
“Covid was everything,” agreed Jason Greer, a labor consultant and former field agent for the NLRB. “Many people said, ‘I see my family members dying and my friends dying, and we suddenly faced our own mortality, but many organizations still expected you to work just as hard or harder.’
As governments and employers impose new restrictions to slow the spread of the pandemic and demand services that allow people to do more than at home, such as e-commerce and food delivery, workers have faced new challenges. Retailers had to wear masks and check their vaccination status. Supply and warehouse staff were concerned that they were not properly equipped with the appropriate safety equipment.
“We saw a tidal wave of activism in the first months of the pandemic,” said Jess Kutch, co-founder and co-executive director of Coworker.org, which is helping workers organize the effort. The group saw more use of its website over a three-month period than all previous years combined. “It was a clear indication that many more people want to speak openly than before.”
Many of these workers communicated about their struggles through digital channels, which became a natural setting for any communication during the Covid blockade. “When you follow Apple’s push, Google’s pressure, I think a lot of it has to do with digital channels like Slack,” Greer said. “It was this perfect storm of people who have more access to each other with tools in such an environment.”
At the same time, huge disruptions in purchasing patterns have led to record profits in companies such as Amazon and Google, which have been equipped to meet the needs of a society suddenly forced to stay at home. As a result, the distance between leadership and order has increased, experts said, adding that in many cases, executive directors ‘salaries increase while employees’ salaries remain the same.
In one example of an insensitive CEO who went viral, Better.com CEO Vishal Garg fired 900 employees, or about 9% of the company’s staff, during a cheeky video call at Zoom in early December.
Supportive political environment
Organizers are also taking advantage of the supportive political environment they have seen for decades.
Early in his term, Biden reorganized the National Labor Council by firing former NLRB chief presidential adviser Peter Robber Peter Rob shortly after taking office. Biden then appointed the new chief counsel, Jennifer Abruzzo, a former union lawyer who used his law enforcement powers quite widely.
“Significantly, Biden’s first action was to do so because he was sending a message to workers that the NLRB, even with its weaknesses, should not be dismantled from within,” Pierce said.
Biden focused on meetings with captive audiences, a common practice used by companies to repel union efforts. The NLRB’s agreement with Amazon in December sent a message to other companies and unions that the NLRB would be aggressive in imposing violations.
The president met with 39 national labor leaders on Thursday, including Christian Smalls, who heads Amazon’s Labor Union, and Laura Garza, a union leader at Starbucks’ New York City Roastery.
Media attention to the organization of employees – successful or not – also fuels the domino effect, experts said. They don’t even have to be successful, Kutch said.
For example, employees in an Apple store in Georgia told CNBC last month that they were inspired in part by Amazon employees who tried to merge a warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. Derrick Bowles, who is on the organizing committee of the Apple Retail Union, said he had “great respect” for what Bessemer employees had done – although the union’s initiative had not yet been successful.
In Seattle, Starbucks organizer Sarah Papin, 31, said she had been in contact with union workers at Verizon.
“We all revolve around the same rotten retail jobs,” Papin said. “This is the moment when we all realized that it actually sucks everywhere, so let’s just stand by and prove it.”
In early May, Starbucks said it would raise wages, double training for new employees and add a tip feature to credit and debit card transactions. However, he said he would not offer improved benefits to workers in more than 50 cafes owned by the company that voted for unionization.
“We see social justice combined with workers’ justice, and it not only ignites but also pays off,” Pierce said.
Richard Bensinger, a union organizer at Starbucks Workers United and a former AFL-CIO director, believes most of the union workers are in their early 20s, prompting him to be part of Gen U for unions. According to Gallup data from 2021, young people aged 18 to 34 approve of unions at a rate of 77%.
These younger workers see the other’s victories as inspiration for their own, experts said.
Kutch and Pierce gave the example of Google Walkout, which she said was “an important moment not only for the technology sector, but also for the history of the labor movement.”
In November 2018, thousands of Google employees in more than 20 offices around the world organized walks in protest an explosive report by the New York Times which details how Google protects executives accused of sexual misconduct, either by retaining staff or allowing them to leave amicably. The organizers described it as “a workplace culture that doesn’t work for everyone” and listed several demands. Some of them eventually became California law, while others were included in an agreement with shareholders who sued the company to deal with the incidents.
This showed that employees of a large corporation can get organized through internal calls, spreadsheets and emails – in a few days, Kutch said, adding that many people have seen the images on social media.
“Shouting in the park about injustice or raising a banner in front of a facility has a much greater effect when it’s online,” Pierce said.
CNBC’s Annie Palmer also contributed to this report.