Are unions coming back?

After World War 2, industrial unions were the economic backbone of the middle class.

Since then, vast numbers of blue-collar jobs have been eliminated by offshoring of manufacturing and automation of what remained, and concerted conservative political attacks against organized labor, starting with Reagan, all but destroyed the unions except in some government and service sectors (e.g., teachers and nurses).

Republicans, never friendly to labor, targeted unions in part because they were a major source of Democratic support both in terms of donations and votes. The decline of unions after 1980 occurred at a time when economic power was shifting to corporations and labor’s bargaining power was relatively weak.

But recently, union organizers have scored some initial successes at companies like Starbucks and Amazon, both of which vigorously oppose unionization. A labor shortage has strengthened workers’ bargaining power, and a fed-up and angry workforce has re-energized the labor movement.

In this changed environment, are unions on the verge of staging a comeback?

CNBC says, “After years of declining influence, unions are having a resurgence. Employees from companies across the country are increasingly organizing as a means of asking for more benefits, pay and safety from their employers.” The story (read it here) noted that union election petitions are up 57% from a year ago, and CNBC called it “a union boom.”

For example, more than 250 Starbucks locations have filed union election petitions, and 54 have voted in union representation. (Starbucks has about 9,000 stores in the U.S., not counting franchisees, so that’s not a lot — yet.)

Polls show about 68% of Americans support unions, compared to 71% in 1965, so public sympathy for unions is nearly back to what it was during unions’ heydey.

CNBC says the “biggest factor” in unions’ surging popularity is the pandemic. A former NLRB chairman says vulnerable workers, in particular, were “not only scared, they were pissed.” While they watched family and friends die, employers were indifferent, and “expected you to work just as hard or harder,” often without protections. A group that helps workers organize says, “We saw a tidal wave of activism during the first months of the pandemic.”

One hotbed of worker discontent is low-paid retail workers, who were tasked with enforcing unpopular mask mandates, and had to face angry, abusive, and sometimes violent customers. For many, the low wages weren’t worth it, and they quit. The retail sector, despite offering pay raises, now finds itself struggling to hire workers.

CNBC also cites a “more supportive political environment now,” although that certainly wasn’t true of the Trump presidency. But Biden has used his executive power to replace anti-labor Trump appointees in federal agencies, such as the NLRB, and is pursuing more union-friendly policies, like contesting employers making employees sit through mandatory anti-union meetings.

Corporations could afford to pay and treat workers better. Generally speaking, they’re enjoying record profits despite the pandemic — and workers know it. In the 1950s, about 60% of U.S. economic output went to labor and 40% to capital; by the 2000s that had reversed to 40% labor and 60% capital. The stock market enjoyed a boom even through the pandemic, while millions were unemployed, as a result.

Now, with twice as many job openings as available workers, jobseekers don’t have to put up with bad bosses, lousy working conditions, and crummy pay. The pendulum is beginning to swing back. Workers want work-from-home options (especially important for mothers), flexible schedules, work-life options, and better pay and benefits. Employers competing for scarce labor have little choice but to make concessions to accommodate them.

Fast-rising wages are being blamed for inflation, but keep in mind wages are rising less than inflation, which is cutting worker’s purchasing power. The Federal Reserve has begun tightening financial conditions, but probably can’t tighten enough to cool inflation without causing a recession, which will reduce labor demand and make wage increases harder to get. (Uber is an example of a company already cutting back on hiring, see story here.) That could give further impetus to the union movement.

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