2022 has been a pivotal year for American unions

This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis. It was first published in The Conversation.

Labor Day 2022 comes smack in the middle of what looks increasingly like a pivotal year in the history of American labor unions.

The summer saw a steady stream of labor mobilizations. Employees at Trader Joe’s Massachusetts and Minneapolis sites both voted to unionize. Meanwhile, the Chipotle restaurant chain saw the first of its stores unionize, following a vote by workers at an outlet in Lansing, Michigan.

This follows a wave of successful mobilization efforts at Starbucks and Amazon. The growth of unionized stores at Starbucks in particular has been staggering. Since baristas in Buffalo, New York, became the first in the chain to unionize in December 2021, colleagues at 234 other outlets have followed suit in recent months.

Similarly, the success of an independent Amazon union — formed in 2020 by Chris Smalls, an Amazon worker fired for protesting what he saw as inadequate COVID-19 safety precautions — in forming the retail giant’s first plant to have a unionized workforce inspired others to do the same.

It comes as polls show public support for unions is at its highest level since 1965, with support from 71% of Americans. There is definitely something going on in the labor movement in 2022.

A different organization

As a scholar of the labor movement who has observed union campaigns for two decades, what I find almost as striking as the victories is the unconventional nature of the union campaigns.

Workers at Amazon and Trader Joe’s are forming independent unions, while at Starbucks and Chipotle, employees are joining established unions. But that difference aside, the dynamics at play are remarkably similar: the campaigns are led by determined young workers. Essentially, it is bottom-up organizing, rather than being led by formal, seasoned union representatives.

Inspired by the pro-union sentiment of political movements, such as Bernie Sanders’ presidential bids, Black Lives Matter and the Democratic Socialists of America, individuals are leading workplace reform efforts rather than union organizers professionals. Indeed, it would be difficult to find many experienced organizers among recent successful campaigns.

Instead, the campaigns involved a significant degree of “self-organisation” – that is, workers “talking union” to each other in the warehouse and cafes and reaching out to co-workers in other stores in the same city and across the country. This marks a radical departure from the traditional way of operating the labor movement, which has tended to be more centralized and led by seasoned union officials.

A revival of work

Perhaps more important than wins at Starbucks, Amazon, Trader Joe’s and Chipotle themselves is their potential to create a sense of optimism and enthusiasm around union organizing, especially among younger workers.

The elections follow years of decline for unions in the United States, both in terms of membership and influence.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, these recent labor victories would probably have seemed unimaginable. Powerful and wealthy corporations like Amazon and Starbucks seemed invincible then, at least in the context of National Labor Relations Board rules, which are strongly opposed to pro-union workers. Under NLRB rules, employers can — and do — force workers, on pain of dismissal, to attend union-busting sessions, often led by highly paid outside consultants.

Starbucks said it had been “consistent in denying any allegations of union busting. They are categorically false. But the NLRB alleged the coffee chain fired and coerced workers, placed union supporters under surveillance and retaliated against them.

The NLRB also filed a lawsuit against Starbucks for illegally withholding pay and benefit increases from pro-union workers, and currently has nearly 300 open charges of unfair labor practices filed against Starbucks management. Amazon, which in the past has advertised for analysts to monitor “union threats,” said it respects workers’ rights to join or not join unions.

The significance of the recent wins isn’t primarily about 8,000 new union members at Amazon or a gradual stream of new union members at Starbucks. It’s about instilling in workers the belief that if pro-union workers can win at Amazon and Starbucks, they can win anywhere.

Historical precedents show that labor mobilization can be contagious.

In 1936 and 1937, workers at General Motors’ Flint plant brought the mighty automaker to its knees in a sit-down strike that quickly inspired similar action elsewhere. In the reported words of a Chicago doctor, explaining a later sit-down strike by nurses in the city: “It’s just one of those funny things. They want to strike because everyone is doing it.

seize the moment

The pandemic has created an opportunity for unions.

After working on the front lines for more than two years, many essential workers like those at Amazon and Trader Joe’s feel they have not been rewarded enough for their service during the pandemic and have not been treated with respect by their employers.

This appears to have helped boost the popularity of smaller, workplace-specific unions.

The local nature of these campaigns prevents chains from employing a decades-old trope at the heart of corporate anti-union campaigns: that a union is an external “third party” that does not understand or care about the concerns of employees and is more interested in collecting dues.

But these arguments ring hollow when the people who join are co-workers they work with day in and day out.

This has the effect of nullifying this central argument of anti-union campaigns despite the many millions of dollars that companies have often injected into it.

An unfavorable legal landscape

This “self-organization” is in line with what the authors of the Wagner law of 1935 envisioned, the law that establishes the procedures for union representation today.

The first chairman of the National Labor Relations Board, J. Warren Madden, understood that self-organization could be fatally undermined if companies were allowed to engage in union-busting pressure tactics:

“Upon this fundamental principle – that an employer must keep its hands on employee self-organization – rests the entire structure of the law,” he wrote. “Any compromise or weakening of this principle strikes at the root of the law.”

Over the past half-century, anti-union corporations and their consultants and law firms – aided by Republican-controlled NLRBs and right-wing justices – have undermined this process of worker self-organization by allowing union elections to become dominated by employers.

But for the long-term decline in union membership to be reversed, I think pro-union workers will need stronger protections. Labor law reform is essential if the nearly 50 percent of nonunion American workers who say they want union representation have a chance of getting it.

Dispel fear, futility and apathy

Lack of popular interest has long been an obstacle to labor law reform.

Meaningful labor law reform is unlikely to happen unless people care about the issues, understand them, and believe they have a stake in the outcome.

But media interest in the campaigns at Starbucks and Amazon suggests the American public may finally be paying attention.

It’s unclear where this latest labor movement — or moment — will lead. It could evaporate or simply spark a wave of unionization in the low-wage service sector, spurring a national debate on workers’ rights.

The main weapons available to anti-union companies to repress union dynamics are fear of reprisals and the feeling that organizing is futile. Recent successes show that unionization no longer seems so scary or so futile.

John Logan is a professor and director of labor and employment studies at San Francisco State University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article. This is an updated version of an article originally published on April 4, 2022.

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