In the United States, public support for labour organising has risen to its highest level in decades. A Gallup poll in 2022 found that 71 percent of people in the US approve of labour unions, a rate not surpassed since 1965.
And the year was marked by efforts to unionise at some of the US’s most prominent brands, including Starbucks and Apple.
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But despite the popular momentum, 2022 proved to be a period of wins and losses for America’s labour movement. Spurred by inequality and the stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic, workers staged historic organising efforts at companies like the retail giant Amazon – with mixed results.
In April, for instance, a New York warehouse became the first Amazon facility to join a union in the company’s 28-year history. But a subsequent effort at a second New York warehouse in October failed to muster enough votes.
The spotty gains have experts warning that organised labour has yet to rebound from decades of declining union membership.
“There’s a growing interest in labour organising, especially among young people. That’s all true,” Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor of labour history at the University of California at Santa Barbara, told Al Jazeera.
“Having said all that, the fact is that this has not yet moved employers or most politicians to make structural changes that would support the resurgence of labour unions. They don’t feel threatened yet.”
Amazon was not the only high-profile employer to see its workers make unprecedented union bids in 2022. In June, Maryland workers for the tech giant Apple also voted to unionise for the first time, stating that they were motivated to seek “rights [they] do not currently have”.
And two stores – one in Massachusetts, the other in Minnesota – became the first locations in the Trader Joe’s grocery chain to form unions.
The organising efforts were not limited to the private sector, either. The University of California system, a well-known network of public universities, faced what unions called the largest worker strike in the history of US academia.
An estimated 48,000 academic workers carried out the nearly six-week strike, winning higher wages and stronger benefits in a deal reached this December. The agreement, union leaders said, will help employees struggling with California’s high cost of living. Some workers, however, voted against the deal, saying that the gains were inadequate to meet basic needs.
But even within companies that have strong unionising movements, labour organisers faced heavy opposition.
The coffee chain Starbucks, for instance, saw breakout unionisation efforts across the country, with more than 250 stores voting to unionise since 2021. Workers at more than 100 Starbucks stores walked off the job in November, calling for better wages, more staffing and more consistent scheduling.
But Starbucks resisted the organising efforts. Labour leaders have accused the coffee giant of attempting to intimidate employees and, in some cases, ousting pro-union voices.
In August, a federal judge ruled that Starbucks had illegally fired seven pro-union workers from locations in Memphis, Tennessee. The court required the company to offer the employees their jobs back.
Jane McAlevey, a policy fellow at the University of California Berkeley Labor Center, has worked as a union organiser and negotiator. She said that workers should not expect companies to go along with efforts to build labour power.
“Going up against a company like Starbucks or Amazon is very, very tough,” she said, pointing to the considerable resources the companies have at their disposal. “They are not going to give workers more power without a struggle.”
McAlevey has watched as union numbers declined precipitously. When the US Bureau of Labor Statistics began gathering data on union membership in 1983, more than 20 percent of the workforce belonged to a union.
That figure already represented a substantial drop from previous highs, but by 2021, that number had been cut nearly in half to just 10.3 percent.
McAlevey explained that the sharp decline is the legacy of an “all-out assault” by anti-labour groups over the last 50 years, as they worked to contain and then roll back the advances of organised labour.
That effort included the spread of “right to work” laws, which prevent workplaces from requiring employees to pay union dues. McAlevey also pointed to political and economic shifts, particularly in the 1980s, that resulted in greater hurdles for unions.
“Sectors with high rates of unionisation like automobile manufacturing are shipped overseas, and politicians like [then-US President] Ronald Reagan start to signal that they are going to take a hostile approach towards unions,” McAlevey said.
Early in his administration, Reagan, a Republican, intervened in a 1981 strike led by air traffic controllers who sought better pay and shorter hours. Deeming the strike a “peril to national safety”, Reagan moved to fire and replace striking workers, banning them from ever being rehired by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Those actions, McAlevey said, signalled a “shot across the bow” for collective bargaining.
A friend in the White House?
US politics have shifted in the decades since, and when Democrat Joe Biden won the presidency in 2020, he promised to be “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen”.
But this year, halfway through his first term, Biden faced a major test of his pro-labour credentials.
Railroad workers were preparing to launch a nationwide strike that businesses warned would slow the US economy to a grinding halt. An estimated 30 percent of US freight moves by train, and a strike could have cost the economy as much as $2bn per day, according to the Association of American Railroads.
Over the summer, the Biden administration had helped craft a tentative agreement that would boost pay for rail workers. Several unions voted to ratify the deal, but some of the groups with the largest memberships voted against it, citing unmet demands, including a lack of paid sick leave.
Facing a deadlock, Congress intervened to impose the deal and stop the workers from striking. At the same time, Congress shot down an amendment that would have given workers seven paid sick days.
While Biden justified the intervention as averting a “real disaster” for the economy, labour advocates denounced the move as curtailing the rail workers’ ability to negotiate and denying them the right to strike.
In an open letter to the Biden administration, more than 500 labour historians declared their support for the railroad workers.
“We are alarmed by your decision to ask Congress to impose an unfair and unpopular settlement in the current railway labour negotiations,” they wrote.
The historians warned that government interventions in labour can have long-term implications. They also challenged Biden to make good on his labour promises.
“What do these commitments mean if the women and men who work in an essential industry like rail cannot count on your support in their fight for basic protections?”