Amazon, Apple, Chipotle, REI, Starbucks, Trader Joe’s. It seems like every day brings a new and surprising union.
Workers are organizing at some of America’s best-known companies and in industries previously thought to be non-unionizable. They’re also doing so against the tide of a decades-long decline in union membership, which has resulted in wiped-out benefits and wages that haven’t kept pace with the cost of living. Lately, the news has been filled with stories of everyone from bartenders to warehouse workers voting for unions and negotiating contracts, a trend that makes it seem like unions are finally on the rise again.
Indeed, a number of recent data suggests that these union gains are more than just headlines. From election victories to collective action, 2022 has been a big year for unions so far. In the first half of the year, unions won 641 elections, the most in nearly 20 years, according to data from Bloomberg Law, which analyzes data from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
And while union victories at household names like Starbucks, which has had more than 230 unionized stores this year, certainly add to the total, they’re not the only thing driving union growth. As Bloomberg Law’s Robert Combs pointed out, even without the coffee chain, 2022 would still have surpassed last year’s numbers. The retail, service, healthcare and transportation industries saw growth in union formations this year.
In all, there were 80 percent more NLRB election victories in 2022 than in 2021, and those victories represent more than twice as many workers (43,150) as last year. Unions have won nearly 77 percent of their elections this year, matching the highest rate since 2000 in Bloomberg data.
Petitions for future elections rose nearly 60 percent in the first nine months of the fiscal year, according to the NLRB, so expect more elections and possible victories to come in the second half.
Experts attribute the rise in union organizing, in part, to the pandemic. During the global crisis, many of the companies that have since unionized called their employees “essential workers,” but did not treat them that way when it came to wages, benefits and safety. The situation prompted workers to organize, but they still have a long way to go before reaping the rewards.
In order for a union to fulfill its promises, workers must negotiate and agree a contract with their employer, which is not an easy task if employers do not cooperate. Starbucks, for example, has been using a whole range of tactics to delay the deal. So far, the company has begun bargaining with only three of the more than 230 Starbucks stores that have unionized.
To get companies to bargain in good faith, unions will likely have to resort to collective action, such as strikes. This is already happening.
There were 180 strikes in the first half of this year, a 76 percent increase compared to last year, according to data provided to Recode by Johnnie Kallas, project director of the ILR Labor Action Tracker from Cornell. More impressively, these strikes involved three times as many people as last year. These actions have the double objective of getting the unions what they want from their employers and raising their situation to the public.
In general, the rise in union organizing is occurring amid—and perhaps contributing to—greater approval of unions. About 71 percent of Americans approve of unions in 2022, according to new Gallup polling data. The last time union approval was this high was in 1965, when union membership rates were more than twice as high as today.
Whether this high approval rating leads politicians to enact reforms that would make unionization less onerous in the first place remains to be seen. For now, all signs point to unions doing the best they can in the current situation.