As a result of picking fights with some of the biggest corporations in America, unions are experiencing more publicity than they’ve seen in decades. Starbucks, Amazon, Ford, UPS and even the entirety of Hollywood have all felt the strength of unions recently. Although present raw union membership numbers may not compare to the spikes throughout the 20th century, the ability to take on corporate giants — and actually come out on top — proves to be a glimmer of hope for organized labor. After decades of court decisions and legislation diminishing the power of workers, this slight resurgence is an opportunity to reverse the trend. Their fights and successes will not only benefit those under contracts they seek to improve, but all working class Americans. So pay attention, show support and fight for the rights of fellow American workers.
The current growth in organized labor has been tracked back to 2018. It has since been accelerated by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and economic downturn in what researchers call a “global hot shop”. This, multiplied by the fact that the media has become more sympathetic and understanding of labor struggles, creates an equation for each union fight to become an inspiring underdog story that Americans are willing to support. Plus, seeing the success of one union across the country can inspire others to take action themselves; it lets others know they don’t have to endure the abuses of stagnant wages, safety violations, constant overworking or being denied the simple human dignity of using the bathroom. So long as corporations continue to treat their workers like trash and disregard their well being, unions are the only way to ensure workers are respected and treated fairly.
Now, by no means have unions made a complete comeback, but many factors about the current economic and political state of America give hope that this could be the beginning. For starters, nationwide approval of unions is at the highest it’s been since the 1960s with 71% of respondents in support. In politics, this has made great waves, causing both presidential election frontrunners, Joe Biden and Donald Trump, to appeal to union workers as part of their campaigns. As for the numbers demonstrating actual union activity, union jobs increased by 273,000 in 2022, consistent with the trend that was seen in pre-pandemic years. It also seems as though more and more people are trying to join unions as union representation petitions have increased by 53% in 2022.
Now, with all this being said, unions are still at very low numbers compared to their history, and their overall share of the job market has still gradually decreased over the past few years. So, this situation is somewhat of a “union paradox” where their popularity and approval is incredibly high, but their actual nationwide strength and participation is very low.
The reason for this is very simple: unionizing in the modern day is difficult. Decades of court decisions, deregulation efforts, anti-labor laws and the outdated system of establishment-level unionizing have made it extremely challenging for people to join their fellow workers in representation. The political system has intentionally stripped workers of their powers and is incapable of enforcing the weak protections it still has in place. Recently, estimates report that there are at least 60 million workers who would like to organize but cannot due to high barriers preventing them from doing so.
This imbalance is to the detriment of all workers, not just those who are or hope to be represented by unions. The simple fact is that higher union activity and participation economically benefits the vast majority of workers. Specifically, there has been a strong, consistently negative correlation between union membership in the U.S. and the share of income going to the top 10%. Simply put, fewer unions lead to more income inequality in America. There is also research that shows the median wage today would be 8% higher had unions not lost power after their 1979 peak. Economists also look to history to analyze the effect of a strong union base, and the conclusion is simple: “There has never been a sustained period of broadly shared growth in any advanced economy without strong unions.”
If strong unionization is necessary to promote growing wealth among the working class, it is clear that the current state of economic inequality is a political choice that has been made by denying workers their ability to organize.