United States of Labor: why record interest in unions does not bring a bold membership growth

In recent times, in the United States, we have witnessed a strong wave of unionization and, at least, discussion about labor unions taking over social media channels and news outlets. Witnessing Starbucks workers organize over 300 coffeeshops throughout the country, while railroad workers are about to go on strike dealing a sever blow to the supply-chain, we might be prompted to draw the conclusion that unionization is happening everywhere. But…

The 2021 Bureau of Labor Statistics Data (BLS) confirms the opposite, showing that the unionized workforce is still on the declining trend, having lost 241.000 members.

According to a recent Gallup poll, despite the downfall in union members, the interest has been reaching a record-high level since 1965, with 71% of Americans agreeing with the actions of organized labor. For organizers, the high level of support might sustain the growing momentum, offering the impression that people want to see unions where they work. As a labor activist, I feel content by the number, yet my Romanian nihilistic education makes me worrisome when it comes to interest without action.

It is similar to the NIMBY (Not in My Backyard) movement: people agree with the existence of affordable housing projects, yet they would not want to see those in their neighborhoods. In theory 71% of Americans agree with labor unions, yet out of the un-organized workforce which represents 90% of all employment, 58% show no interest in joining one.

The idea of a union excites many, since we all love to see revolutionary messages on television or hear talks about social justice. Neverthless, many still do not want to join one.

I could draw the line and comfortably end the article. Though, I would have facilitated a narrative that we have heard for the past decades: unions are a thing of the past and workers are not interested in joining them. Instead, we should look at the various reasons why workers might face problems in joining one

Difficult to organize a union

When forming a union, the organizers must gather the support of a majority who would like to sign cards and become dues-paying members. In theory, it sounds like a conversation suffices, talking to our colleagues about the benefits of forming one and creating a union by the end of the day.

While the current legislation allows for voluntary recognition by the employer, in the great majority of cases, bosses refuse to recognize the effort of organizers and instead ask for a formal election through the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Basically, the employer says that even if a representative majority was met, they do not believe in the validity of the group, thus they ask the government to intervene and organize the election.

Electing through the NLRB cane take up several months and in cases where there is not a clear legal precedent, the vote might be delayed indefinitely. When organizing Bates College in ME, USA, MSEA-SEIU (the author is employed by the union) faced a situation that was not clearly-defined in the handbook, which has put an halt to the unionization process.

Fear of retaliation

Besides the difficulties in forming a union, there is still a looming fear of retaliation.

Workers regard their actions as being anti-employer and expect the bosses to pick a fight if they hear the u-word. It is not a thing of the past, since current companies that have been very vocal with progressive messages in the past (especially regarding identity issues) have fired workers that were exercising their democratic rights.

Starbucks fired workers in multiple locations, yet recent NLRB memorandums forced them to reinstate them and offer compensatory pay. A worker cannot be fired legally for organizing a union, yet employers sometimes use this tactic in order to calm down the spirits. The worker will be lawfully given back the job back, yet the wait time offers a high degree of anxiety as a result of no stable pay.

Bad image of the unions

Last but not least, unions have not had a clear history of always fighting for the right causes and working in the interest of the workers. The corruptions cases which became Hollywood sensations are still on everyone’s lips when they reference the Teamsters: Ah, Hoffa’s union, right?

Aside from the corrupt leadership, unions have been acting as bureaucratic institutions in some cases removed from their workers and their interests. Bargaining at times happens behind closed doors and workers are presented with an offer by their union stewards.

They might not like it, thus contributing to a further clash between the base – the workers – and the organized labor institution.

Drawing the line, I argue that simply reducing the problem to unions being a thing of the past is an incomplete argument. It does not take into consideration the difficulties people face when organizing. My argument is limited since it does not take into consideration the recessionary fears that workers might experience which can, in fact, prompt them to be obedient and stay away from organizing.

Regardless of the amount of people wanting to organize at the current moment, predicting the future is an impossible task. Rather than falling in the pessimistic side, I would like to believe that unions will continue to grow in interest and more people would like to join them.

Unions are no longer present in the hard industries of the Rust Belt, but are now a common term in coffee shops, bagel shops and fast food restaurants.

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