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  • Alex Horn

Shifting Tides: The Resurgence of American Labor

“Unions are making a comeback.” If you at least pay some attention to the news, you likely hear this phrase at least weekly. Whether that be from the over 200 Starbucks stores that voted to unionize, the success of the Amazon Labor Union to organize thousands warehouse workers, recent state legislative victories, or the dozens of strikes and other direct actions, unions have at the very least been significantly more visible over the past year. But the trends are undeniable. In the first half of 2022, union elections increased by over 75% from last year and is at a 15-year high, and the number of newly organized workers from these elections more than doubled. Furthermore, the number of workers who went on strike increased nearly three-fold, and overall approval of unions at its highest point since 1965—at 71%. However, to put these numbers into perspective, the past 70 years has seen a sharp decline of union strength. In 1954, 35% of wage workers were unionized, while today the number is just over 10%. Unions are unequivocally good for both individual workers and society, with unionized workers receiving better pay and benefits, and they lessen racial income inequities between workers, but states with higher rates of unionization have higher access to healthcare, higher incomes, and less voter suppression. So why has union membership taken such a stark decline, and why, only now, are we seeing such a great resurgence?

After World War II unions were very much on the upturn. In 1935, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) was passed, enshrining collective bargaining rights. Naturally, membership surged, from 2.8 million union members before the enactment of the NLRA, to 8.4 million at the beginning of the war, then to 14 million by the end of the war. However, even as union membership was surging, the economy was changing. In Europe, when a union won a contract in one company those agreements were automatically extended to the rest of the industry, while in the United States, unionized workers had to organize in each workplace independently. However, unions were still able to overcome this barrier, as while the overall portion of unionized workers went down during this period, the raw total of unionized workers rose—until the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. In 1976, Buckley v. Valeo was decided by the Supreme Court, which overturned critical portions of the Federal Election Campaign Act, including all provisions that regulated independent expenditure committees (a.k.a. Super PACs). Four years after Buckley was decided, Ronald Reagan would be elected President, and his neoliberal administration forever changed the course of the American economy and struck hard hitting blows to many campaigns and organizing efforts for progressive change, including unions. It was only at this point when unions in the United States actually started losing members, and since 1983 the percentage of wage workers belonging to a union has been halved.

So why now are unions making this comeback? What is it about the political and economic environment, along with its historical context, that have allowed unions to make this huge comeback? The answer, primarily, is us, as young people. For most of us, our first financial memories were made during the Great Recession, as our parents lost homes and jobs. As we graduated from high school and college and entered the job market, the global pandemic began, creating one of the worst financial crises this nation has ever seen, while at the same time American billionaires increased their own personal fortunes by 70%. Income inequality is at a record high, with the top 1% controlling more wealth than the bottom 92%, and the wealthiest 50 Americans control more wealth than the bottom half of the U.S. Growing up seeing these devastating consequences of neoliberalism and late capitalism has greatly changed our perspective of these prevailing economic orders, with even the right-wing Cato Institute reporting—before the pandemic—that a majority of young people agree that income inequality hurts democracy, the wealthy attained their wealth through exploitation, and we even have a favorable view of socialism. So it is largely us who is leading the charge for unionization. Young people have a much higher approval rate of unions than older generations, despite having lower rates of unionization, and so we are working to change that. A third of all successful union elections in the first half of 2022 were at Starbucks stores—where the average worker is 24 years old. Similarly, the efforts by the Amazon Labor Union—which culminated in the single largest unionization event in the first half of 2022—unionized a workplace where a majority of people are in their twenties, and the second largest unionization during this time were MIT graduate student workers.

Similar organizing is currently being done here at the University of Maryland. AFSCME Local 1072 already represents over 3,400 UMD workers, and AFSCME—in coordination with other labor organizations on campus including Fearless Student Employees and USAS Local 54won a $15 minimum wage for all campus workers two years ahead of when the Maryland minimum wage will reach $15, but there is still a long way to go. Under Maryland law, graduate student workers are still barred from collective bargaining, UMD public health measures still woefully under-protect workers (and students) from the ongoing pandemic, and graduate students, staff, and faculty alike are struggling financially, especially due to the high cost of living in the region. Unionization trends over the past few months have been promising, but there is still significant work to be done—including here at UMD—to ensure that all workers can attain the absolute minimum: fair benefits, safe working conditions, and a living wage.


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