Why Labor Unions Are Making a Comeback in 2022
The American workforce is changing. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the economy was defined by record profits, stock market gains, and the decline of labor union influence. Gig workers and online retail reshaped many industries and the nature of employee-employer relationships. These trends yielded agile new companies, but they also contributed to surging inequality and a lack of bargaining power for America’s workers. Labor unions are now seeing a comeback in a trend reversal from the past few decades.
Union membership has deep roots in America, first appearing in the late 1700’s and emerging through railroad companies during the early period of national expansion. The Industrial Revolution introduced new ways to work, along with new workplace hazards in coal mines, factories, and other blue-collar industries. Resistance from organized labor developed, and the concept spread to other professions to advocate for stable, safe, and equitable employment. The Great Depression and wartime economy of the mid-20th century catapulted unions to a period of widespread popularity. Middle-class incomes and working conditions improved as a result, and unions enjoyed a period of dominant political and social influence.
Unions began to lose their influence in the 1980’s, as supply-side policies favored corporate business rights and clashed with worker priorities negotiated through collective bargaining. Public sector employees such as police officers and teachers unions have retained high membership rates, but other sectors experienced lower support for unionization. New businesses that emerged in the technological age haven’t had to grapple with the same worker demands at scale, at least until recently.
Organized labor is experiencing a resurgence because of stresses from the COVID-19 pandemic and the stark reality that huge corporate profits are not reaching the workforce. Today’s large companies are seeing new waves of labor momentum in a movement that appears to be feeding upon itself. Labor union approval among Americans is at its highest level in decades and union membership applications are increasing dramatically, according to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). A union-friendly political environment coupled with the experience of front-line workers during the pandemic have energized many labor leaders to begin new union organizing campaigns, and many Americans to favor unionization to fight for better working conditions.
Safety is a top concern for many labor activists, but so are benefits, pay, and working-hours policies. Most white-collar professionals were able to work from home and many continue to do so. Workers in retail, hospitality, logistics, and other front-line professions haven’t had that luxury. They either had to accept higher exposure to the coronavirus, sudden unemployment, or adjusted work demands. These types of workers are seeking improved job security and recognition that they too need opportunities to adapt to a new economy.
Today’s union organizing efforts are also addressing the slow deterioration of earning potential for the middle class. Real wages have not kept up with inflation or the cost of living over the past several decades, and the pandemic highlighted a dynamic by which profits accumulate at the top while neglecting the compensation needs of the broader workforce.
Workers across the nation now see their concerns given high visibility in labor union organizing efforts at Amazon, Starbucks, The New York Times Company, and other companies seeking labor union representation. Shared prosperity may look different in 2030 than it did in 1960, but today’s workers are taking a cue from last century’s labor union organizers. 2022 appears to be the year that enables labor unions to regain their prominence in American working life.