Union Resurgence: What’s Behind the Rising Labor Movement?

In March 2022, the United States witnessed a watershed moment for the decades-long labor movement when Amazon workers from Staten Island voted to unionize their warehouse. Many declared it one of the most significant victories for organized labor in U.S. history.

Although still fighting their battle, the Amazon union and similar organizations are underscoring a resurgence of labor power across the country. This movement — a so-called “union boom” — has sparked a renewed interest in union membership and representation.

What’s fueling this fire? Let’s explore the rise of the resurging labor movement and where it may be headed in the years to come.

Unionization on the rise

A nationwide flood of momentum has swung back in the direction of union support. In fact, unions are perhaps more powerful than they’ve been in many years. Take a look at the numbers:

A full 68% of Americans approve of labor unions. According to a recent Gallup poll, that’s the highest rating for union approval since 1965 — 57 years ago. It’s also a major uptick from 2009, when ratings were a record-low 48%.

More than 16 million workers in the U.S. were represented by a union in 2022. The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) says that’s an increase of more than 200,000 people from 2021.

● Between October 2021 and September 2022, the National Labor Relations Board received a 53% increase in union election petitions, the highest single-year increase since 2016.

● EPI data suggests that more than 60 million people wanted to join a union in 2022 but couldn’t.

Perhaps the clearest evidence that unionization is surging is the recent traction that workers have gained against the country’s largest corporations. Before Amazon, more than 6,500 Starbucks employees voted to unionize in 2021 and 2022. The effort that started in Buffalo, N.Y., eventually led to over 250 corporate-owned Starbucks stores becoming fully unionized — another threshold victory for the labor movement.

What’s fueling the labor movement?

Multiple factors are contributing to the rising tide of union power:

1. Dissatisfaction with pay and benefits: As workers struggle with the rising cost of living, decades-high inflation rates are cutting into already lukewarm paychecks. Wages have increased marginally over the past 40 years, spurring employees to fight for better pay that accounts for these increased costs.

2. Job security amid financial uncertainty: Recessionary fears are pushing workers to seek greater job security from their employers, arguing that there’s a disconnect between leadership and rank-and-file staff.

3. Poor working conditions: Fighting burnout, mental stress and more, workers are also pushing companies to improve their policies and create a safer, employee-centric environment.

Why workers want unionization

Against this backdrop, the contagious union movement is quickly gaining steam. But what makes unionization so enticing in the first place? How do workers stand to benefit from union representation?

According to EPI, wages, benefits and working conditions all improve when employees are bound together to form a union and collectively bargain. In fact, a union worker earns 10.2% more on average than a peer with a similar education, occupation and experience level in a nonunion workplace.

Unions also increase pay equity for women while reducing ethnic and racial wage gaps. Hourly wages for female, Black and Hispanic workers, respectively, all increase on average compared to nonunion employees with the same characteristics.

Critically, labor initiatives also improve workplace health and safety. Union employees can negotiate for better health insurance, paid sick leave and safety equipment. More important, they can report unsafe conditions without fear of employer retaliation.

Will the union boom continue?

It remains to be seen whether recent labor progress will maintain its momentum, but there’s much reason to be optimistic. President Biden’s pro-labor administration has created a supportive political landscape for workers to continue fighting for their labor battles. He has, for example, been outwardly vocal in his support for the PRO Act, — a bill that aims to cut the red tape throughout the unionization process.