Workers Push for Labor Unions and What a Comeback Means for the Workforce

A trade union is an organization of workers – usually by company or profession – that want to achieve the same goal. Unions are seemingly stronger than a single employee when it comes to negotiations. While one person quitting over low wages might not impact an employer, a business may go under if the entire staff walked out. 

But some workers prefer to stay out of unions because of the associated fees and politics. A 25-cent raise might not be worth an annual $1,000 union due, and the workers could risk losing their own voice if it differs from the crowd. 

Joining a union is almost compulsory in some trades, so workers must pay fees if they want to work. For example, actors, stagehands, and others in the entertainment industry may need to join SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) to work on a unionized project. 

Here are some common industries that have unions:

  • Skilled trades, like carpenters, electricians, plumbers, and mechanics
  • Health care, such as doctors, nurses, and technicians
  • Education, including teachers, administration, counselors, and special education
  • Transportation, like conductors, drivers, and machine operators 
  • Public sector, such as police, firefighters, and social workers
  • Government, including agents, analysts, and officers

The Decline of Trade Unions

Unions did not become popular until the 1930s, nearly a hundred years after being introduced in the United States. Labor unions benefited from the F.D. Roosevelt administration, which gave workers the right to unionize through the Wagner Act. They were at their peak in the mid-1950s when more than a third of workers were enrolled in American unions. 

Today, only about 10% of the working population is in a union. Membership has declined since the early 1980s, and some reasons may include the following:

  • A dramatic shift in the type of work available when manufacturers shifted factories to other countries with cheaper workforces and foreign goods undercut American products. 
  • Businesses threatening to close down or move if workers went on strike. 
  • Changing society’s feelings towards free competition and deregulation. 

Additionally, the number of strikes, walkouts, and lockouts declined sharply by 49% from 1970 to 1980. Then, in 1981, former President Reagan penalized an air traffic controller union for breaking the law prohibiting federal government workers from striking. More than 11,000 workers were fired and banned from future service with the federal government. 

Companies typically do not favor unions, since their power could cost them profit. An employer cannot legally stop workers from forming one, but some can intimidate or coax staff from remaining union-free. 

Recent Pushes for Unions

In late 2021, about 10,000 John Deere employees in the United Auto Workers labor union walked out of factories in Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, and Kansas over a new labor contract. The month-long strike cost an estimated 10 to 15% in production for two consecutive fiscal quarters. 

Around the same time, around 1,400 Kellogg’s employees at four plants (Michigan, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee) went on strike for 11 weeks. The workers are members of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers’ International Union (BCTGM). 

To form a union:

  • The employer must voluntarily recognize it, or
  • The majority of employees vote for union representation.

Starbucks employees in Buffalo, New York unionized in December 2021 because of their concerns for workplace safety. Six workers picketed outside the building, causing the establishment to close for the day. 

It was one of the first of six Starbucks stores (out of more than 8,000) in the country. Now, more than 100 Starbucks stores in 26 states petitioned the National Labor Relations Board about holding union elections. 

Amazon employees in Bessemer, Alabama and on Staten Island in New York voted in April 2022 about forming a union. The Amazon Labor Union spent two years trying to unionize the warehouses. 

The Staten Island warehouse voted yes for representation by the Amazon Labor Union. However, the Bessemer results are still reportedly pending because of confusing ballots.

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