What’s behind the union boom?
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.
Though still fighting their battle, the Amazon union and similar organizations are underscoring a resurgence of labor power across the country. This movement — a “union boom” of sorts — has sparked a renewed interest in union membership and representation.
But is there really a union boom? And if so, what’s fueling the fire? Let’s explore the rise of the resurging labor movement and where it may be headed in the years to come.
Is there really a union boom?
The short answer is yes. Though the U.S. labor movement has had its ups and downs over the past few decades, momentum has swung back in the direction of union support.
In fact, unions are perhaps the most powerful they’ve been in many years. Let’s break down the numbers:
- 68% of Americans approve of labor unions. According to a recent Gallup poll, that’s the highest that union approval has been 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 over 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 over 60 million people wanted to join a union in 2022, but couldn’t.
Perhaps the most clear evidence that unionization is on the rise is the recent traction that workers have gained against the country’s largest corporations. Before Amazon, over 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 union boom?
Multiple factors are contributing to the rising tide of union power:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 improve workplace health and safety, too. Union employees can negotiate for better health insurance, paid sick leave and safety equipment. More importantly, 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. For instance, he’s been outwardly vocal in his support for the PRO Act — a bill that aims to cut the red tape throughout the unionization process.
Despite their recent successes, union organizers are sure to remain steadfast in their pursuit of a more equitable, fair and representative labor market.