Senator Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, left, speaks next to Christian Smalls, founder of the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), during an ALU gathering in the borough of Staten Island in New York, USA on Sunday, April 24, 2022.
Victor J Blue | Bloomberg | Getty Images
After years of waning influence, unions are having a resurgence. Employees at companies across the country are increasingly organizing themselves as a means of demanding greater benefits, pay and safety from their employers.
Between October 2021 and March of this year, trade union representation petitions filed with the NLRB increased 57% from the same period a year ago, according to recent data by the National Labor Relations Board of the United States. Over the same period, allegations of unfair labor practices increased by 14%.
More than 250 Starbucks offices have submitted petitions, and after getting a first win at the end of last year, 54 Starbucks company-owned stores formally organized. Workers at a Amazon warehouse in New York City recently voted form the first union at the second largest private employer in the United States and join the Amazon Labor Union. Google Fiber contractors in Kansas City with success voted unionized their small office in March becoming the first workers with bargaining rights under the one-year Alphabet Workers Union.
These efforts are resonating with the general public. A Gallup poll conducted last September showed that 68 percent of Americans approve of unions, the highest rate since 71 percent in 1965.
So why are unions becoming popular again?
Experts say the most important factor was the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The pandemic was the wake-up call or the catalyst that sparked two perspectives: ‘is there another way to work and live?’ and the relationship between employers and workers, ”said former NLRB president and current Georgetown law professor Mark Pearce. “Vulnerable workers – not only were they scared, they were pissed.”
“Covid was everything,” agreed Jason Greer, a labor consultant and former field examining agent for the NLRB. “A lot of people said ‘I’m watching my family and friends die and suddenly we faced our own mortality, but many organizations still expected you to work as hard or harder.’”
As governments and employers have imposed new restrictions to slow the spread of the pandemic and the demand for services that allow people to do more from home, such as e-commerce and grocery delivery, has increased, the employees faced new challenges. Retail workers had to enforce the use of masks and check vaccination status. Delivery and warehouse employees were concerned that they were not properly equipped with the right safety devices.
“We saw a wave of activism during the first months of the pandemic,” said Jess Kutch, co-founder and co-executive director of Coworker.org, which assists workers in organizing the efforts. The group saw more use of their website over a three-month period than in all previous years combined. “This was a clear indication that many more people wanted to speak out than before.”
Many of these workers have communicated their struggles through digital channels, which have become the natural disposition for all communication during the Covid lockdown. “When you follow the push from Apple, the push from Google, I think a lot of that has to do with the adoption of digital channels like Slack,” said Greer. “It was this perfect storm of people having more access to each other with tools in such an environment.”
At the same time, huge disruptions in buying patterns brought record profits to companies like Amazon and Google, which were equipped to meet the needs of a company suddenly forced to stay at home. As a result, experts said, the gap between leadership and rank has widened, adding that in many cases executive salaries have risen while employee salaries have remained the same.
In one example of a callous executive who went viral, Better.com CEO Vishal Garg fired 900 employees, or roughly 9% of the company’s staff, during a cheeky Zoom video conversation in early December.
The organizers are also taking advantage of the favorable political environment they have seen in recent decades.
President Joe Biden voted to be the “most union-friendly president ever” and was very vocal about his support for the PRO Act, which aims to make the unionization process easier and less bureaucratic.
Earlier in his term, Biden renewed the National Labor Relations Board, firing Peter Robb, former President Donald Trump’s NLRB general counsel, shortly after taking office. Biden then installed the new general councilor Jennifer Abruzzo, a former union attorney, who used his executive powers extensively.
“It is significant that Biden’s first action was to do this because he was sending a message to work that the NLRB, even with its weaknesses, shouldn’t be dismantled from within,” Pearce said.
Biden has targeted captive audience gatherings, a common practice used by companies to reject union efforts. The NLRB settlement with Amazon in December sent a message to other companies and union organizers alike that the NLRB will be aggressive in enforcing violations.
On Thursday, the president met with 39 national union leaders, including Christian Smalls, head of the Amazon Labor Union, and Laura Garza, union leader at Starbucks’ New York City Roastery.
The media focus on employee organization, whether successful or not, also fuels a domino effect, experts said. They don’t even need to be successful, Kutch said.
For example, employees of an Apple store in Georgia he told CNBC last month they were inspired in part by Amazon employees trying to unionize a warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. Derrick Bowles, who sits on the Apple Retail Union organizing committee, said he has a “huge amount of respect” for what the Bessemer employees did, even if that union drive has not yet been successful
In Seattle, Sarah Pappin, 31, a Starbucks organizer, said she had been in contact with Verizon’s union retail workers.
“We all move between the same bad retail jobs,” Pappin said. “This is where we all realized that it actually sucks everywhere, so let’s take a stand in one spot and prove it.”
In early May, Starbucks said it would raise wages for permanent workers, dual training for new employees and adding a tipping function to credit and debit card transactions. However, he said it won’t offer the greatest benefits to workers at the more than 50 company-owned cafes they voted to unionize.
“We are seeing social justice combined with worker justice and not only is it catching fire, but it is getting results,” Pearce said.
Richard Bensinger, a Starbucks Workers United union organizer and former organizing director of the AFL-CIO you think most pro-union workers are in their early 20s, leading them to join a “Gen U” for unions. According to Gallup data from 2021, young adults ages 18 to 34 approve unions at a rate of 77 percent.
These younger workers see each other’s victories as inspiring their own, experts said.
Kutch and Pearce gave the example of the Google Walkout, which in her opinion “was an important moment not only for the technology sector but for the history of the labor movement”.
In November 2018, thousands of Google Employees in more than 20 offices around the world come out on stage to protest an explosive report from the New York Times which details how Google has protected executives accused of sexual misconduct, either by keeping them personal or by allowing them to walk away amicably. Organizers described it as “a workplace culture that doesn’t work for everyone” and listed several requests. Some of them ended up becoming Californian lawwhile others have been incorporated into a settlement with the shareholders who had the accident management company to the south.
It showed employees at a large company could get organized via internal chats, spreadsheets and emails – within a matter of days, Kutch said, adding that many people viewed the images through social media.
“Shouting in the park for injustice or holding up a banner in front of a facility has a lot more effect when it’s on the Internet,” Pearce said.
CNBC’s Annie Palmer also contributed to this report.