The Labor Union Comeback
October 26, 2022
Surging support for labor unions is beginning to leave its mark on the American economy. By now, most have heard about unionization efforts at major companies such as Starbucks, Amazon, and other corporate giants, but the trend is more widespread than a few companies or even a few industries. Positive public sentiment and a push for better working conditions is emboldening a resurgence in labor activism that could have big impacts on the post-pandemic workforce.
Traditional union-heavy employment sectors are beginning to flex their muscles again after years of declining membership and influence. Rail worker strikes are imperiling a precarious supply chain; nurses are walking the picket line, adding to challenges for healthcare providers; and public-sector labor union members are maintaining a significant presence. These groups appear to be prioritizing their treatment and workplace conditions above other talking points. These themes are reminiscent of decades past, when union membership was a more common hallmark of the American workforce experience. Polling indicates that over two-thirds of Americans now view unions positively, reversing an overall decline since the mid-1960s.
Policy discussions and boardroom meetings are likely to adapt to this labor renaissance, but how, exactly? The current trend in union support is obviously positive for labor organizers and activists, but the long-term trajectory is far from certain. Today’s global economy is much more digital and complex than in the 1960’s, and a paradox looms over the discussion that threatens further momentum. In contrast to the upward trend in labor union perceptions generally, there continues to be a decline in the number of union members, and even those who want to join one.
This contradiction provides challenges and opportunities, depending on perspective. Remote work, independent contracting, and other perks of autonomous private sector employment may have made the search for better working conditions less dependent on union membership than in the past. This means that many of those who support labor union efforts generally may not want to take part in the actual organization, payment of dues, and other responsibilities of union participation.
Employers seeking to work with unions or counter their influence may benefit from the fact that most people still prefer to be in control of their own negotiations and workplace relationships. In an environment of increasing unionization efforts, direct employee dialogue is more important than ever. Perhaps the biggest challenge for business leaders is the ability of organizers to leverage social media and instantly create a public narrative. Balancing the financial and operational realities of their businesses with an increase in online labor union messaging will not be easily navigate. Ultimately, worker autonomy and enabling employees to shape certain aspects of their working conditions may be the focal point for companies seeking to adapt to an increasingly labor-friendly populace.
The effects of a labor union comeback are already making waves. Worker satisfaction and conditions of employment are front and center to this movement. Only time will tell how workers, policy makers, and business leaders respond to the trend at large.