No industry seems untouched by the recent rise of union popularity. Recent examples include outdoor goods seller REI; the New York Times tech workers; Alphabet (parent company of Google); and more famously, retailer supergiant Amazon and coffee chain Starbucks. Several factors such as the current labor shortage, the Covid-19 pandemic, and high-profile union litigation gaining traction on social media have played crucial roles by increasing worker autonomy and contributing to one of the largest national labor movements seen in the U.S. in decades. While union membership has generally declined annually in the U.S. since 1983, labor action has not seen the same decline. Between October 2021 and March of 2022, union representation petitions filed at the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) increased 57% from the same period in 2020–2021. Unique factors facing workers in recent years have caused a newfound rise of labor unions, a stark contrast to trends in recent decades.
According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a record 4.5 million U.S. workers left their jobs in November 2021, and more than 4 million workers left their jobs in every month from July 2021 through November 2021. Known as the “Great Resignation,” the ongoing event of record-breaking numbers of workers leaving their jobs has given workers the edge by creating a shortage in the labor market. In 2019, there was a high of approximately 7.5 million job openings in the United States; in 2021, there was a high of approximately 11.4 million. Possible causes of the labor shortage include wage stagnation, job dissatisfaction, burnout, and safety concerns related to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Covid-19 pandemic has driven workers to demand more from their employers—namely, better pay and better working conditions. According to Bloomberg Law’s database of work stoppages, in 2021, the final strike total reached 169, more than any year since 2012. Generally, periods of worker shortages give union members considerably more leverage as workers become harder to replace.
The social impact of the pandemic also significantly contributed to the recent spike in union involvement. In addition to accelerating the larger ongoing employee movement, the pandemic has brought work-life balance to the forefront. Further, according to a Gallup poll conducted in August 2021, 68% of Americans now approve of labor unions. Only 48% of Americans approved of labor unions in 2009, but the number has steadily increased since 2016 to reach the current highest reading measured since 1965. A recent CNBC survey found that a majority (59%) of U.S. workers across all industries indicated support for increased unionization in their workplaces. The recent uptick in labor union approval may at least partially be due to the rise of media coverage of unions. High-profile union victories that were widely reported on and broadcast on social media have assisted in increasing public awareness of the labor union movement. The first union win by employees at a Starbucks in Buffalo, New York, in December 2021 resulted in workers at 140 Starbucks in 27 states petitioning for unionization votes as of March, and today, well over 100 locations have unionized. Additionally, recently Amazon warehouse workers successfully voted to unionize an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, New York City, NY. The historic vote came after workers at the the largest Amazon facility in Staten Island, which Amazon calls JFK8, formed an independent union called the Amazon Labor Union, which, despite the lack of ties to organized labor, succeeded in having its workers vote in favor of unionizing by a margin of almost 11 percent. Amazon is the second-largest private employer in the U.S. after Wal-Mart.