In polling data, Americans offer strong support for unions. But in practice, the share of American workers belonging to a union has been declining for decades. How will these competing tensions be resolved?
A report written by an interdisciplinary group of pro-union researchers under the auspices of the The Worker Empowerment Research Network Explores the Current State of “American Workers’ “Organizing Efforts and Collective Actions” (June 2022). Specifically, the report is co-authored by Thomas A. Kochan, Janice R. Fine, Kate Bronfenbrenner, Suresh Naidu, Jacob Barnes, Yaminette Diaz-Linhart, Johnnie Kallas, Jeonghun Kim, Arrow Minster, Di Tong, Phela Townsend, and Danielle . Twiss.
Here is data from the Gallup survey on the proportion of Americans who say they approve of unions. It often hovered near 60 per cent, tThe most recent survey (available only a week ago and not shown in this chart) places support at 71%.
Additionally, a substantial portion of American workers say they would like to have more say in their workplace.
However, the sThe number of American workers belonging to a union peaked in the late 1940s and early 1950s at about one-third of the labor force. Here is the share of U.S. private sector workers who have belonged to a union since the early 1970s:
There are a range of possible explanations for this gap between what appears to be union support and what unions can provide, and actual union membership. Those who support unions often point out that US labor law can make it difficult to organize and win union elections in a given workplace. By international standards, the legal rules for forming a union are objectively stricter in the United States than in most other high-income countries. However, it also seems true that many American workers who support unions in the abstract are much less supportive of unions in their own workplaces and often seem wary of whether a formal union will focus and make progress on the day-to-day issues that matter to them as workers.
Given the steady downward trend in unionization rates over the decades, it seems unlikely that the current U.S. legal framework for unionization will lead to a rebirth of U.S. unions anytime soon. Indeed, perhaps the deeper problem here is that the American legal framework for unionization is establishment-based, that is, it is primarily focused on workers who share a voting commonplace. for a union. For a company with many different locations – a current example is Starbucks – each location must vote for a union. Conversely, existing labor law on unionization does not focus on groups of workers: for example, gig workers, part-time workers, workers in domestic jobs, teaching assistants and graduate students, agricultural workers, middle managers and others. The report notes:
A number of unions and other worker advocates say that trying to organize large multi-site employers one location at a time is not a viable way to engage them in dialogue and/or negotiations over workers’ concerns. . This led to a series of protests, mobilization efforts and political campaigns for new regulations aimed at
have their voices heard in corporate-level decision-making and governance processes, where key employment and workforce strategies and decisions are made. To date, very few of these efforts have succeeded in bringing representatives of workers and company management to a dialogue table. What measures, through public policies, private action and/or dialogue between company and worker representatives within the company, sector or
national levels could explore ways to foster one or more forms of engagement?
When the report refers to a range of efforts, what are they thinking? Here are some examples of institutions that seek to voice labor concerns, but do not involve a standard American-style dues-paying union based in a certain location:
Worker centers are “community mediating institutions that support and organize communities of low-wage workers. … Although worker centers were established throughout the 1980s and 1990s, their numbers began to increase dramatically in the late 1990s. In 2005, there were at least 135 active worker centers in the United States , down from about 30 in 1992. By the end of 2018, there were at least 234 active worker centers in the United States, and we identified 12 new centers that have since emerged. then.
A striking example of a targeted campaign that relies on political mobilization is Fight
for $15. Started by a group of fast food workers in New York in 2012 with significant financial and organizational support from SEIU and Change to Win, Fight for $15 now operates in more than 300 cities and six continents. The campaign has spread beyond fast food
to include other low-wage workers such as home care workers, airport workers, and adjunct teachers. It relies on city-wide and region-wide organizing committees that mobilize brief strikes to create political leverage and change the discourse on low-wage work.
Founded by Sara Horowitz in 1995, Freelancers Union is one of the oldest labor organizations that does not seek formal collective bargaining rights. A multi-professional professional association promoting the interests of
self-employed through policy advocacy, provision of benefits, resources and community development, the Freelancers Union has over 500,000 members
at national scale. Over the past few years, the Freelancers Union has conducted various policy advocacy campaigns in support of independent contractors, including the enactment in 2017 of the
New York’s Freelance Isn’t Free Act protecting independent contractors from non-payment and inclusion of self-employed people in pandemic unemployment assistance benefits authorized in the CARES Act of 2020.
Coworker.org, founded in 2013, is a peer-based digital platform that provides online resources for workers participating in workplace petition campaigns and other empowerment strategies. The Coworker.org petition site allows workers to exercise their voice and lobby for better working conditions, as well as raise awareness of issues and challenges within specific worker communities. Coworker.org supports the collection of signatures among employees of organizations and also provides resources such as training, funds and communication spaces that aim to help workers maintain large decentralized networks in the workplace. According to Coworker.org co-executive director Michelle Miller, the first two months of the pandemic saw a surge in worker activity on the site. While dedicated to serving all types of workers, past and current organizing activity on Coworker.org has primarily taken place in the low-wage service and retail sector and in the technology sector. Over 700 campaigns were listed on its site at the time this report was prepared. The petitions target a range of issues, including wages and benefits, health and safety, coronavirus, hiring and firing, paid sick leave, hours, dress code, staffing levels, discrimination and harassment at work, training and development and parental leave.
As a result, unionization among gig workers has increased, as these workers push for better
labor conditions. Rideshare Drivers United, Gig Workers Rising, Gig Workers Collective, New York Taxi Workers Alliance, We Drive Progress, and Mobile Workers Alliance are examples of worker advocacy organizations that form among workers who provide services for taxi-based platforms. applications such as food delivery. and carpooling.
The report offers a number of other examples of such organisations, as well as examples of situations where large groups of workers have organized a ‘sickout’ or demonstration to put forward their point of view, outside the standard union framework. As we have already mentioned, “very few of these efforts have succeeded in bringing representatives of workers and company management to a dialogue table”, at least so far.