Sep 4, 2022
Close to Home published in the Press Democrat covers the rise in unionization. Written by our delegate Marty Bennett.
A wave of labor organizing and worker militancy is sweeping numerous industries and large companies. Amazon workers in New York, Apple workers in Maryland and Starbucks workers at 140 stores nationwide voted to affiliate with a union this year. Organizing campaigns have spread to a dozen Amazon warehouses and hundreds of Starbucks coffee houses. Employees of Target, Trader Joe’s, REI, Chipotle Mexican Grill and other grocery stores, retailers, media outlets and hospitals have petitioned the National Labor Relations Board to hold union elections.
Locally, Sonoma Valley Museum of Art employees recently voted to join Cultural Workers United American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees.
Martin J. Bennett
A Gallup Poll in 2021 indicated that 68% of Americans approve of unions, the highest since the mid-1960s. We should pause this Labor Day weekend to consider why the labor movement is surging and whether it can reverse the decline of union membership, which fell from more than 1 in 3 workers in the 1950s to barely 1 in 10 today.
Aside from the low unemployment rate, there are two main explanations for the surge.
First is soaring inequality and workers’ heightened awareness that the economy’s gains are accruing to the top. The upper one percent in the 1970s owned 20% of the nation's household wealth. Today the wealthiest households own 35% of the wealth. The Economic Policy Institute reports that CEO compensation at the 350 largest firms skyrocketed 1322% between 1979 and 2022, while that of the typical worker rose just 18% percent. Meanwhile, the Commerce Department reports that profits were at a 70-year high last year.
The upshot is that workers believe the economy is fundamentally unfair, especially for essential front line workers and the lowest paid.
Second, the pandemic exposed workplace inequities. Essential workers who cannot work remotely have disproportionally suffered fatalities, adverse health effects and economic loss. Consequently, grocery clerks, food delivery and Uber drivers, fast food and hospital workers have engaged in protests and job actions. The lack of personal protective equipment sparked walkouts at the Staten Island Amazon warehouse, where workers later organized. Unionized nurses and other hospital workers waged strikes in many states in 2020 and 2021 to protest understaffing, long hours, extreme stress and PPE shortages.
The pandemic slammed low-wage essential workers in agriculture, nursing homes, home care, restaurants, fast food and meat packing. According to the Brookings Institution, many were unable to socially distance themselves at work, only 30% received paid sick leave, and most lacked access to affordable health care. Essential workers comprise nearly half of all workers earning less than $15 an hour. Their low wages meant they had no financial cushion if they had to take off work to quarantine or care for children following school closures.
In May 2020, as the economy reopened, COVID raced through service sector industries. Workers at McDonald's, Whole Foods, Instacart, Target and FedEx staged coordinated one-day strikes and sickouts to protest their employers' record profits at the expense of worker health and safety. These protests laid the groundwork for the current organizing wave. Workers are demanding a strong voice on the job, enhanced health and safety protections, a living wage and hazard pay and paid sick leave.
A 2018 PBS poll found that nearly half of nonunion workers, if given the opportunity, would join a union. Why? Because a union gives workers power at the workplace to engage in collective bargaining for better pay, benefits and working conditions. According to the Economic Policy Institute, a union worker earns 11.2% more than a nonunion worker with the same education and experience in the same industry. Union workers are far more likely than nonunion to receive employer-provided health care and retirement. Unions improve health and safety conditions by providing health care and paid sick leave benefits, enabling workers to report safety hazards without fear of retaliation and requiring safety equipment and training.
Today, unions matter more than ever before.
Martin J. Bennett, an instructor emeritus at Santa Rosa Junior College, is a consultant for UNITE HERE Local 2.