Amidst a wave of unionizing efforts across the United States, the National Labor Relations Board has reported a 57% increase in the number of union representation petitions filed for the first half of the 2022 fiscal year (October 1 to March 31). At the same time, charges of unfair labor practices (ULPs) have risen by 14%. Workers today are organizing and petitioning for more union elections than at any point in the last 10 years. In fact, a recent Gallup poll shows that at 68% labor unions in the United States today have the highest approval rating since 1965.
It makes perfect sense that the country is experiencing a swell in union popularity and organizing. Workers who have been framed throughout the pandemic as “essential heroes” quickly realized that the title didn’t come with any tangible benefits. Coupled with the “great resignation” we have seen as a result of these crises, workers today have additional leverage to demand more from their employers.
Unions on the rise
The first successful union drive at Amazon led to a historic victory at the JFK8 warehouse in Staten Island, New York. High turnover, dreadful safety standards, and overwork were among the main motivations behind unionization.
Amazon is notorious for horrendous mistreatment of its workers, which has led them to fight back. Warehouse workers at Amazon experience workplace injuries at a rate of at least twice that of other warehouse workers. Of the 38,344 recordable injuries in the past year, 89% of them were so severe that workers were not able to perform their jobs. Workers persevered despite a vicious anti-union campaign, which Amazon spent millions of dollars on.
Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama, have yet to win their union election. After being forced to hold a second election due to misconduct during the first, Amazon continued to participate in illegal union busting, leading to a plethora of ULP charges.
Starbucks workers all over the country have also joined the fight, with union drives in Colorado, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, and many other states. In the last year, there have been well over 200 petitions filed for a union election, with at least 50 victories — with most elections yet to happen. These workers have been facing deceitful anti-union campaigns from the behemoth company, including but not limited to harassment, intimidation, removal of union literature, captive audience meetings, retaliatory firings, and an influx of new, unorganized employees right before elections. Despite the company’s efforts to crush the organizing wave, the fear tactics have only increased workers’ resolve.
The current landscape of the labor movement has some similarities to labor upsurges we have seen throughout history. The last devastating global pandemic, the “Spanish flu,” decimated the population, killing approximately 50 million people worldwide. In the United States, the death toll was around 675,000. In 1919, as the pandemic was subsiding, the United States saw the largest mobilization of workers to date. Four million workers participated in the flurry of strikes that took place throughout the year, an astonishing one-fifth of the country’s workforce at the time. Workers were striking for shorter work weeks and wage increases to match the cost of living.
A decade later, after the Great Depression began in October of 1929, the working class bore the brunt of the suffering and pain associated with this period. By this point the labor movement was much weaker than it had been in 1919, but it was not long before workers realized that they needed to organize so as not to be crushed completely. Throughout this period, millions of workers who had never been in unions before began to organize.
The organization of workers and the historic strike wave in the early 1930’s led to significant reforms that still stand today. Because of the militant upsurge in the labor movement, workers won the first minimum wage, the social security system, federal unemployment compensation, and a program for government employment. The federal government also passed the National Labor Relations Act, which gave workers in the private sector the right to form unions and collectively bargain with their employer. The ruling class sensed a real crisis within the system and made these concessions to stabilize itself in the face of increasingly popular desire for a new type of society altogether.
History has shown us the great strength workers have when organized. The recent surge in NLRB petitions demonstrates an increased appetite to fight back from workers all across the country amidst poor wages and working conditions.
Photo credit: Geraldshields11 (Wikimedia Commons)