In early April, workers at an Amazon.com warehouse on Staten Island voted to form the e-commerce giant’s first U.S. union, building on successful organizing efforts at Starbucks and leading to speculation that a new American union movement is underway. At Starbucks, more than 180 of the company’s 9,000 corporate stores have petitioned for union elections with 16 voting to unionize after a unionization campaign went public last August. An REI location in Manhattan last month voted to unionize, as well.
The elections follow years of union decline with the share of U.S. workers in unions dropping to 10.3 percent in 2021, down half a percentage point from 2020 and the lowest rate in decades. The tight labor market and pandemic-related work pressures, however, have created a rare opportunity for workers to rally around better pay and treatment. President Joe Biden ran on a promise to be the most pro-labor president, and a September Gallup poll found 68 percent of Americans approve of unions, the highest favorable since 1965.
The reason labor law reform proponents are hopeful is because the unionization efforts have been initiated by employees at the local level rather than the traditional centralized labor approach led by seasoned union officials. The local approach counters traditional anti-union tactics that contend outside unionizers fail to understand workers’ concerns and are only interested in dues.
Amazon in a statement said the company was “disappointed” with the vote’s outcome “because we believe having a direct relationship with the company is best for our employees.” It has launched an appeal. The New York Times reported that Amazon’s “ability to speed packages to consumers is built on a vast chain of manual labor that is monitored down to the second. No one knows what will happen if the newly organized workers try to change that model or disrupt operations.”
Discussion Questions: Will retailers likely be seeing unionization drives with greater frequency in the years ahead? How might tactics have to change to discourage such efforts, or should retailers be looking to work with unions?
Comments from the RetailWire BrainTrust:
As unionization crumbled in the U.S., so did the wages of the average worker and the increase in financial equality. It is no coincidence that the golden age of unions in the 1950s corresponded to the golden age of the U.S. economy and the smallest gap of inequality in the country’s history. Today, the power of the leadership far outweighs the workers’ power. Imagine a company with even 20,000 or more workers having no say in the company’s future nor their own. If retail doesn’t embrace worker representation as a way for both labor and management to move the company forward, they should be fearful of the outcome. Companies should not patronize workers in voice or action, they should see them as the fuel that determines the company’s long-term success.
It’s notable that the successful Amazon unionization campaign in New York came from a grassroots movement rather than an established national union. Perhaps these more localized efforts represent the future of unions. As for the subject of unions more widely, I am not particularly keen on them and never have been. To me they are an entirely extraneous component that neither owns a company nor works there. And I am very, very strongly opposed to anyone who does not want to be a part of a union being forced to pay union dues.
Neil Saunders, Managing Director, GlobalData
Unions have suffered from silly opposition based on theory more than reality — and from their own bureaucratization. Yet there are also tremendous benefits they can bring companies and which companies should embrace. I’ll especially point out that the Great Resignation wouldn’t be happening if we had more unions in place as they wouldn’t have accepted the decades long degradation in employee working conditions. This myth about “between the company and the employee” looks like a lobbyist talking point. It’s is also paternalistic which reflects exactly the reason unions are popping up again – because in their paternalism companies abuse the relationship with employees. That said, unions need to focus on the important matters – not on mere bureaucratic control which can be abused to stop progress. Hopefully new blood in the union movement can return it to a focus on the things of most importance.
Doug Garnett, President, Protonik
Happy workers don’t unionize. It is that simple.
Shelley E. Kohan, Associate Professor, Fashion Institute of Technology
I assume workers will now have to pay union dues and that they will beget corruption as they always do. We’ll see how this works out. Maybe I’m colored by my father’s experience. His union went out on strike for 9 months. He had no other source of income. When the strike ended, he had no job to go back to because they put the company on the brink of going out of business. He never forgot nor forgave.
Joel Rubinson, President, Rubinson Partners, Inc.
Read the full weekly consensus