A New Generation Could Revitalize Union Efforts in the U.S.
Union membership has steadily declined in the U.S., from 20.1% of the workforce in 1983 to 10.3% in 2021. The number of major work stoppages involving 1,000 or more workers has also fallen markedly, from more than 400 a year in the early 1950s to just 16 in 2021. At the same time, however, support for unions has recently grown—especially among younger workers.
A Gallup poll released last fall found that support for unions is at its highest point in almost 65 years. According to the report, 68% of Americans now approve of organized labor. That means support has risen 20 percentage points since 2009, when approval was at its lowest point since polling began. The increase is largely being driven by the labor market entry of Gen Z and younger Millennials, 77% of whom approve of unions.
Union membership has steadily declined in the U.S., from 20.1% of the workforce in 1983 to 10.3% in 2021. The number of major work stoppages involving 1,000 or more workers has also fallen markedly, from more than 400 a year in the early 1950s to just 16 in 2021.
Younger Workers Are Leading the Charge
Fresh faces expect more from employers
Baristas in their twenties led some of the first efforts to unionize Starbucks locations, for example. The effects were felt almost immediately when they went on strike in early 2022 to protest unsafe working conditions. Several early successes have encouraged further unionization efforts, which have now spread to almost 100 stores.
The tech industry, which tends to attract younger workers, is another space where unionization efforts are taking hold. In 2021, Google employees and contractors formed the Alphabet Workers Union. With over 800 members, the union has helped lead the charge in protecting Google workers from wrongful termination and in promoting transparency around who will be using the products they build—such as governments or militaries.
Essential Workers Flex Their Muscles
Workers on the front lines during the pandemic are demanding better conditions
Another major factor driving the shift to union support is the Covid-19 pandemic, which upended many industries, especially healthcare. In 2021, almost 1 in 5 healthcare workers left their jobs, while another 12% were laid off. This talent vacuum created acute staffing shortages in many hospitals, putting even more pressure on those who remained. A 10-month-long nurses’ strike in protest against conditions at St. Vincent’s hospital in Massachusetts was the longest work stoppage in state history.
Amazon is a major corporation whose workers also provided an essential service to Americans during the pandemic. Organizers at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama held a unionization vote last year. While the initial effort failed, there is currently another vote taking place. At the same time, Amazon warehouse workers in Staten Island, New York are now moving towards their own vote in pursuit of longer breaks, better medical and other leave options, and higher wages.
More to Come in 2022?
A more union-friendly generation is coming of age
Recently, labor organizers have emphasized the unionization not only of blue-collar workers, but also of white-collar workers in tech companies and universities. Graduate students at schools like Indiana University and tech workers at companies like Apple and Activision Blizzard have staged sit-ins, circulated petitions, and mounted new unionization efforts. The efforts seem at least partly influenced by tight labor market conditions and the newfound leverage workers have enjoyed in recent months. But a culture shift also seems to be playing a role. Whether those shifts will be enough to reverse the 30-year downward trend in union membership waits to be seen.