The Labor Movement in the 2020s
Workers throughout the country have been organizing for better wages and working conditions.
October 18, 2022
In March, 2020, Chris Smalls was fired from his job at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island after organizing a walkout over unsafe working conditions during the pandemic. This setback only motivated Smalls in his struggle for better working conditions, leading him to fight to unionize the Amazon warehouse. Despite an over $4 million effort spent by Amazon to derail unionization, Small’s efforts paid off and the workers at the Staten Island warehouse voted to form the first-ever Amazon union. Throughout the country, workers in similar situations, facing poor conditions and low wages, have been fighting to make their voices similarly heard through unionization.
Since the late 1970s, unions have been in serious decline with the overall unionization share among workers dropping from 27% in 1979 to 11% in 2019. Meanwhile, workers have seen their wages stagnate even as productivity and profits continue to rise, and major corporations such as Amazon have gained further control over the economy and often subjected their workers to poor conditions. The overall result has led to increasing discontent among workers that finally erupted during the Covid-19 pandemic.
During the pandemic, many workers faced worsening conditions, often lacking basic personal protective equipment. This was happening while billionaires saw their wealth rise to unprecedented levels, exposing vast inequalities in the American economy. Many workers, tired of these poor conditions, began resigning from their jobs in a phenomenon known as The Great Resignation. Recent statistics from the Labor Department show that over 4.5 million workers have left their jobs, shifting the economic power dynamic as businesses face labor shortages and workers see increasing bargaining power.
Workers have used their increasing power to improve their conditions and fight for representation in their workplace, leading to substantial growth and increased support for unions. The National Labor Relations Board states that petitions for unionization have increased by 57% and a recent Gallup poll shows unions are at their most popular point since 1965 with 68% of Americans expressing support for unions. Despite strong opposition from corporations making successful unionization difficult, unions are enjoying increasing political and economic power today.
An important example is the growth of Starbucks unions. Just last year in Buffalo, a Starbucks store overcame all the odds against them and successfully unionized. It was a massive victory for organized labor and created a spillover effect where over 200 Starbucks locations have voted to unionize since.
Starbucks attempted to address this by raising wages and improving conditions while excluding union employees from these benefits. However, this appears to have been ineffective as Starbucks has entered into contract negotiations with the unions.
Another major victory for organized labor emerged from the recent threats of a railway strike. Railway workers used their bargaining power to threaten a strike that would have crippled the U.S. economy. As a result, the Biden Administration intervened in negotiations and reached a deal that increased the pay of railway workers by 24%, allows for additional paid leave, and caps their health insurance premiums.
The trend in this country toward unionization and the overall strengthening of organized labor will likely not stop here. The successful unionization of the Staten Island Amazon warehouse and the unionization of Starbucks show that workers across the country are coming together to fight for improvement in their living conditions.