Apple Inc. workers in Maryland vote last week to form the first union of retail workers of the technology giant in the United States. US President Joe Biden said he was “proud” of the workers, and that “workers have a right to determine under what condition they are going to work or not work.”
Employees of several other big companies, such as Amazon and Starbucks, too, have voted to form unions at multiple locations in the US in the last couple of years. 68 per cent of Americans support the unions, according to a 2021 Gallup poll, the highest approval rating since 1965, when it was 71%.
However, only about 12% of American workers are currently unionised.
There has also been considerable pushback from the companies against unions. Starbucks Corporation CEO Howard Schultz told The New York Times in an interview recently: “We don’t believe that a third party should lead our people.”
What are labor unions?
When workers at a workplace together decide to form an association to collectively negotiate the terms of their employment conditions, that organization is called a union.
Unions were historically also formed by traders and businessmen to safeguard their interests. Workers felt the need for unions in the years following the Industrial Revolution in Europe, given the tough working conditions imposed on them by factory owners.
In America, to have a government-certified union, a petition for an election that has to be filed with the US National Labor Relations Board. After that, a vote must take place among workers. Such filings were up 60% in May 2022 compared to May 2021, The NYT reported.
Have unions been common in the US?
The New York Times journalist Noam Scheiber, who covers labor issues for the newspaper, said on the publication’s podcast The Daily that there might be some parallels today with the post-depression period, which saw a boom in unionisation.
After the Great Depression hit America in the 1930s and jobs were scarce, President Franklin D Roosevelt signed laws that made it easier for workers to form unions. The aim was “to enforce minimum wages, to prevent excessive hours, to safeguard, define and enforce collective bargaining,” Roosevelt said.
As the economy improved, workers began to notice the contrast between the prosperity of big companies such as General Motors (GM) and their own stagnant wages and punishing working conditions. “(GM CEO) Alfred Sloan boasted about being worth $70 million, which in today’s dollars, would be well over a billion dollars. And workers just couldn’t fathom why if the company was doing so well and producing such wealthy executives, why their lives couldn’t be made a little bit easier,” Scheiber said on the podcast.
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Semi-skilled workers began to protest, believing they could put pressure on the company. After some violent episodes, they were allowed to form unions, and the ripple effects were felt elsewhere. Soon, the American steel industry recognised unions. Oilfield workers, textile workers, furniture manufacturing workers, and others did the same.
By the 1950s, about a third of America’s workforce was in unions. One of the biggest victories for the labor movement came in the form of the eight-hour workday.
But the situation changed over time. Globalisation and a shift of manufacturing abroad, the focus on deregulation of industries in the 1970s and 1980s under Ronald Reagan, and other causes eventually weakened the unions and changed the public’s perception of them.
Why are demanding workers unions now?
The demand for unionization is being witnessed mostly in the tech industry and the service industry. Like in the 1930s, this comes after the US employment market is improving after the tough phase of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Richard Trumka, president of The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, the largest federation of unions in the US, said in an interview with CNBC: “This pandemic has amplified (public support) even more. It showed how helpless workers are without a union. They couldn’t even get PPE and unions were able to get it for them.”
Along with support from the Biden administration, the Gallup poll also indicated a role for former President Donald Trump, whose appeal to blue-collar workers may have led to greater interest in labor issues.
Recent social movements may also have played a role. At Google, employees have complained in the last few years about the company’s attitude towards addressing sexual harassment at the workplace in light of the #MeToo movement. This, among other disagreements with the company administration, added to growing frustrations.
The firing of Dr Timnit Gebru, an African-American artificial intelligence researcher, allegedly for her criticism of Google’s diversity policy, caused outrage from workers in the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020. In January 2021, the Alphabet Workers Union was formed .’
At companies like Google, the argument of workers goes beyond salaries. Chewy Shaw, an engineer at Google and the vice chair of the union’s leadership council, told The NYT: “Our goals go beyond the workplace questions of ‘Are people getting paid enough?’ Our issues are going much broader…It is a time where a union is an answer to these problems.”
There is also a greater presence of college-educated workers entering places like Starbucks, due to the job market being stressed after the 2008 financial crisis. Western media have reported on Jaz Brisack, a Rhodes scholar who went to Oxford University, as an unlikely Starbucks worker who is demanding favorable conditions for work.
And what is the argument against the rise of unions?
In his NYT interview, Starbucks CEO Schultz said: “I’m not anti-union, but the history of unions is based on the fact that companies in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s abused their people. We’re not in a coal mining business; We’re not abusing our people… We don’t believe that a third party should lead our people.”
Companies like Amazon also offer higher minimum wages than some other companies, and many workers have no significant grievances. Last year, workers in Alabama bucked the unionizing trend, voting against an Amazon union, with many saying existing benefits of health insurance at the time of joining were enough for them, The NYT reported.
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Workers also said unionisation’s focus on the collective could lead to individual interests — such as the firing of a single person — getting sidelined.
Whether the surge of union activity continues remains to be seen. Scheiber argued that because of the trends in globalisation and automation, workers are more disposable today than they were in the 1930s. Further, in a service-based economy, labour costs have a much bigger impact on a company’s bottom line than they did in the manufacturing-focused era of the 1930s, so companies may be compelled to strongly resist unions that demand better pay and conditions and cut the profit margin.