State of the unions
Following decades of decline, organized labor is having a moment amid the pandemic.
Since reaching peak popularity in the 1950s, union membership in the U.S. has been on a downward spiral for decades.
But the Covid-19 pandemic has shifted the tectonic plates of U.S. commerce, upending American working life in multiple ways. Organized labor has been quick to seize the moment, demanding better wages, benefits and working conditions for workers.
“I think the unions have exploited the current situation very wisely, and with good reason,” said Kishore Kulkarni, Ph.D., distinguished professor of Economics at Metropolitan State University of Denver. “The additional Covid-related burdens workers face just now – what economists call ‘opportunity costs’ – absolutely should be compensated with increased benefits and wages.”
About 8,000 Denver-area employees of grocery chain King Soopers – represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union – voted overwhelmingly to strike this month.
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After nine days of picketing, the company and union negotiators agreed to a contract that “addresses the company’s unfair labor practices,” said UFCW Local 7 President Kim Cordova, who spoke of securing terms that “ensure (that) our members receive the respect, pay and protection they warrant.”
Workers in other industries also are raising their voices.
Throughout last year, employees walked out at numerous banner companies such as Kellogg, Nabisco, McDonald’s and Frito-Lay. They sought to unionize at Starbucks and Amazon.
Picket lines cropped up seemingly everywhere – at hospitals, airports and coal mines. Big-name labor unions, including National Nurses United and the United Farm Workers, spoke out forcefully.
“There’s little doubt that the unions are truly back, and in a roaring fashion,” Kulkarni said.
The resurgence comes after decades of decline for organized labor.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 34.8% of American workers were union members in 1954. But that number dropped to 20.1% by 1983 and then plummeted to 10.3% by 2021. In Colorado, 6.3% of workers were unionized last year.
The primary reason for the decline is pretty straightforward.
“As U.S. dominance in the world grew during the 1950s and 1960s, major growth became possible without offering many labor rights,” Kulkarni said. “Companies were already doing very well, so labor unions simply did not have much clout – especially since many were also hampered by corruption and an inability to negotiate effectively.”
But then Covid happened, followed by the Great Resignation. Millions of Americans have been quitting their jobs every month to reappraise their priorities or seek better opportunities. And for the first time in years, employers face a shortage of workers.
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Renewed respect and admiration for essential workers has helped fuel public support for labor walkouts, Kulkarni said. Amid lockdowns, it was hard to miss the legions of masked workers still out there manning checkout lines, delivering meals, treating patients and keeping the wheels of industry turning.
“This pandemic was only tackled because of their willingness to work hard under risky conditions and serve us all,” Kulkarni said. “And I think people recognize that.”
But there’s another factor that is galvanizing workers: Many companies did very well during the pandemic, and many workers feel that their employers are reluctant, at best, to share the spoils.
In October, 10,000 workers walked out on farm-equipment manufacturer John Deere in the wake of a record $4.7 billion profit and a 160% raise for its CEO. The company’s first strike in more than three decades ended after union-backed employees finally accepted Deere’s third offer.
Like a snowball rolling down a hill, each fresh union victory inspires further strike actions. Ultimately, enough major successes could help spur a revitalized union movement for the modern age, Kulkarni said.
“American employers need to be very aware of the current state of disequilibrium brought on by the labor shortage,” he said. “If companies stay adamant about not paying more to workers, they will face both major friction from unions and mass resignations.”
However, it’s hard to change decades-old habits, and many more corporations will likely still dig in their heels when faced with union demands. “Frankly,” said Kulkarni, “I see more troubled times ahead for the U.S. labor market over the next few months.”