2022 has been a year of firsts for the U.S. labor movement, with successful union votes for the first Amazon warehouse, first Apple Store and first Trader Joe's, Chipotle and REI locations. The most promising of all for union organizers has been victories at some 250 Starbucks stores.
The labor movement has continued to gain traction this fall, despite a high-profile union defeat last week at an Amazon warehouse in Albany, N.Y. With 21 months of strong job gains, the tight labor market has resulted in unusual worker shortages across many sectors over the past year, giving workers more leverage with employers.
"There's a combination of things that have contributed to this organizing wave that we're seeing, and the pandemic and post-pandemic economy have been a large part of that," said John Logan, a labor studies professor at San Francisco State University. "It has opened up an opportunity for unions that didn't exist before the pandemic."
There are other objective measures of increased enthusiasm for unions this year. The National Labor Relations Board reported a 53% year-over-year increase in union election petitions over the past 12 months. Meanwhile, more Americans say they approve of labor unions, a high not seen since 1965.
"In a time where most institutions, including the Supreme Court, are becoming less and less popular or trusted, unions have their highest level of popularity in decades," said David Weil, the Labor Department's top wage and hour regulator under President Barack Obama. "We certainly see a restiveness that is coming out of the pandemic. There's a greater willingness of working people to show dissatisfaction."
However, as the economy teeters toward a downturn in coming months, the window for cementing more victories could be narrowing. Job openings have already fallen, and some companies -- particularly in technology and interest-rate sensitive sectors such as mortgage finance -- have ordered hiring freezes and layoffs, igniting fears that the paradigm of power in favor of workers could be short-lived.
"Workers have a lot of bargaining power, and that is fueling a resurgence in the labor movement," said Michael Strain, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. "Unions are trying to make real lasting inroads during this period. That's going to change in 2023 and almost by definition lead to a reduction in worker bargaining power."
For now, momentum appears to be accelerating in certain sectors, with walkouts at Amazon warehouses last week in Atlanta, Joliet, Ill., and San Bernardino, Calif.
A Home Depot in Philadelphia could become the company's first location to unionize next month, and workers at a Trader Joe's in New York City will vote on whether to make it the company's first union store in that particular region. Quality assurance testers at Blizzard Albany, a subsidiary of games giant Activision Blizzard, will vote on whether to join a union. Labor organizing efforts have also sprung up at Lowe's, T-Mobile and Geico.
It is not clear whether these developments will increase union worker numbers. Last year, despite polls showing elevated enthusiasm for organized labor, union membership in the United States fell to 10.3% of U.S. workers, after a pandemic-related uptick the previous year.
The challenges for labor go beyond a softening of the labor market, as companies such as Amazon and Starbucks have had success fighting off union efforts through sophisticated anti-union campaigns.
While Amazon has been a hard nut for unions to crack, with just one union victory at a Staten Island warehouse in April, organized labor has made inroads throughout the retail and service sector. There have been multiple union election successes at Starbucks, Apple, REI and Trader Joe's this year. Labor experts say those retailers' workforces are easier to unionize because their workplaces are smaller and less physically spread out than Amazon's.
Employees at unionized stores also tend to be younger, more educated and left-leaning politically, experts said. Ruth Milkman, a sociologist of labor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, said that the upsurge in union interest among young, college educated people has been taking shape quietly for years -- particularly in media and higher education -- but it's only recently captured national attention because of high-profile efforts at companies such as Starbucks.
Those workers are in jobs "that are inferior to those they expected or aspired to get," Milkman said. "It's true that the scale is modest. Nevertheless it's highly significant and highly unprecedented."
A number of hurdles that may unfold in coming months could snuff out momentum for unions.
For example, if Republicans do well in next month's elections, organized labor could face a less favorable environment. Tennessee has a GOP-backed ballot measure that would enshrine in the state constitution a "right-to-work" law that exempts workers from paying dues for union representation. Such measures typically correspond with declines in union membership.
Even more significantly, most economists agree that the economy is in the waning days of a tight labor market. Every week, more economists predict a recession in 2023, as the Federal Reserve raises interest rates to control inflation by slowing the economy.
When employers have more power, it is easier for them to retaliate against staffers who try to organize, said Heidi Shierholz, president of the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank in Washington. Workers tend to be more emboldened to unionize during periods of low unemployment and high job availability, she said. "The consequences of taking the risk to unionize are lower if lots of jobs are available," Shierholz said.
Recessions and other economic downturns have often corresponded with declines in union activity and popularity -- with a few important exceptions, such as the Great Depression. For example, the approval rating of unions in the United States dropped to its lowest point in 2009, during the height of unemployment following the Great Recession.
In the 1980s, aggressive interest rate hikes by the Federal Reserve led to a period of prolonged high unemployment, contributing to a dramatic reduction in union membership in the United States.
Labor and employment experts are hopeful that a non-catastrophic economic downturn would not decrease enthusiasm for labor activism and the willingness of workers to demand more.
Weil, the Obama-era labor official, said that although previous historical downturns have resulted in less union activity, the current era of labor relations differs from the periods coming out of the Great Recession of 2008 and dot-com bubble of the early 2000s.
"On either side of those recessions, we didn't see the kind of upsurge in labor activity we're seeing now," Weil said.
However, a full-fledged recession could lead to a drop in union efforts, experts acknowledge.
"If the economy really tanks, that's a different story," said Thomas Kochan, a professor of industrial relations at the MIT Sloan School of Management. "Everyone will get really concerned about job security."