Rising Tide of Unionization Across America: What, Why, and for How Long

Midway through the second quarter of 2022, large American companies face a rise in union memberships at a level not seen since the mid-20th century. With recent news of labor unions forming at massive corporations such as Amazon, Starbucks, and Google, it is difficult to ignore this recent uptick in membership.

Unionization is especially dramatic at Amazon, a company once thought to be too advanced to unionize. However, COVID-19 has changed things. Since the first pandemic lockdowns in March 2020, Amazon has crushed several attempts to form a union. At a Staten Island warehouse, union leaders spent early 2022 collecting signatures to establish the Amazon Labor Union (ALU). When the facility voted on unionization in late March, the ALU won, forming the first ever union at Amazon. This organization formed despite the company’s increased wages and improved conditions, its use of ad campaigns to emphasize these improvements, and the millions of dollars that Amazon poured into anti-unionization initiatives. 

Following this warehouse’s decision to unionize, Amazon has faced an onslaught of controversy for its handling of the situation. When the company terminated two long-time managers at the Staten Island facility on May 5, their coworkers felt the firings demonstrated an unfair attitude towards unions at Amazon. The consequences of these firings made the workers feel that their right to unionize was violated by Amazon. Around this time, the National Labor Relations Board (N.L.R.B.) also announced that it “found merit in accusations that Amazon…violated labor law,” according to a New York Times article from May 6. Though Amazon refuted these allegations, employees see this attitude in other areas of the job, such as mandatory anti-union meetings and what they call threats to “withhold benefits from employees if they voted to unionize.” At another Staten Island warehouse, one worker accused Amazon of breeding “a climate of fear and hate at [the warehouse].” The vote to unionize at this facility failed, with employees seemingly choosing to keep their jobs rather than risk them by unionizing.

Amazon is not alone. The organization of labor unions at Starbucks, Apple, and Google also demonstrate what could signal a new era for unionization. The data reflects this as well. According to a May 16 article from Forbes, Gallup found in September 2021 that 68% of Americans approve of labor unions. Ruth Milkman, a labor sociologist at the City University of New York, quoted in the Wall Street Journal, said, “From the pandemic to…the chaos created by the Great Recession, there’s a sense that something is wrong and maybe unions are part of the solution. Whereas in previous periods some people saw them as too powerful, maybe corrupt, they’ve been restored to their historic place as the underdog.”

But should this surge in unionization surprise Americans? According to data from the Economic Policy Institute, the ratio of CEO-to-worker compensation was 351-1 in 2020. In 1965, it was 21-1. Similar data from the Census Bureau shows that the top one percent of income earners have gained $50 trillion in the past few decades, signifying an “upward redistribution of wealth that has squeezed out the middle class.” 

While unions are currently gaining approval among Americans, the power of unions to lift workers’ rights and benefits is weighed against their costs to shareholders, perceived hindrance of growth, and fostering of internal conflicts. According to Time Magazine, they seem to be “having a moment.” How will this last? Only time will tell.

By Ned Thornton