Forty years ago, workers’ movements began to sink in the United States, under the pressure of neoliberal politics that privileged the entrepreneur over the worker as the personification of the “American dream”. Big business regularly won and the trade unions that had helped create the American middle class after World War II became a faint shadow of their former selves. In the last year, this suddenly began to change.
Now, every week, we get news of workers’ unions winning and new unions being organized in the US, while unions seem to have regained stature in the UK. Meanwhile, across the Channel, especially in France and Italy, trade unions are historically strong and while talk of reform has been a constant, they have not experienced the kind of weakening we’ve seen in the US and the UK over the past decades.
So strikes go on and summer travel could be at risk:
On the European continent, of all the union wins hitting the news in recent months, the one that is most worthy of note because of the power game at work here is the Amazon incident in 2021 at a warehouse in Pomezia, Italy. Here Amazon fired two workers and threatened them with transfer to another location. By May 2022, Amazon was forced to reinstate them – a result obtained by the union USB (Unione Sindacale di Base) with pickets and negotiations over several months of fighting.
The two workers in question working for Amazon were in fact USB union members (“USB delegates”, i.e. union leaders) working at the warehouse: This shows the capillarity of the labor movement in Italy – giving it a strength that even a powerful tech giant like Amazon cannot control.
The US and UK labor situation is different – only some 10 percent of American workers are unionized. And in the UK, while they are around 24% of the total workforce, they used to be 32% in 1995. Yet now trade unions are scoring everywhere in the US. And they are picking up steam in the UK.
Here’s a quick scroll through the latest and most notable wins and what they might mean for the future of the labor movement in those two countries.
Recent notable wins in the US and UK
In the US: On July 8, the news broke that production workers at the long-running animated television shows The Simpsons, American Dad! and Family Guy won 90% support across all three shows and have gained “voluntary recognition” from their parent company, 20th Television Animation, to join The Animation Guild.
This is a first for production workers in animation. While others in the industry – animators, actors and writers – had long been protected by their respective guilds, production work had always been excluded. As a result, they often received much lower benefits than the union counterparts they work with every day on the shows.
The above is yet another sign that worker movements are gaining ground like never before. The Labor Notes conference that took place in Chicago from June 17 to 19 drew the largest ever crowd of some 4,000 grassroots activists, members and supporters of labor unions, demanding better working conditions. Prior to that meeting, there had been a surge in private-sector strikes at companies like John Deere, Kelloggs and Nabisco in 2021, in particular last October called “Striketober“.
Experts last year doubted it would lead to lasting change, but news of strikes and wins at the negotiating table hasn’t stopped pouring in.
A few days after the conference, the news came in on 22 June, that Starbucks workers in Kansas City, members of the Chicago & Midwest Regional Joint Board of Workers United (CMRJB) won their vote to unionize after 3 months of stressful efforts.
BREAKING 🚨Kansas City, MO wins another union election at 41st and Main!!!! 5-4, a KCMO favorite is now union strong 😎
— Workers United – CMRJB (@CMRJB) June 22, 2022
This is the latest in growing labor unionizing at Starbucks: At the time of writing, workers affiliated with Starbucks Workers United had filed for union elections in nearly 300 stores across 35 states and had won more than 180 of them.
However, unionizing is not painless. On July 9, the news came out in Colorado that 9 Starbucks workers were fired after voting for unionizing. This must be added to the few dozen other cases around the US where workers report they have been fired from the coffee retail chain during a union organizing campaign.
Nor does unionizing lead to instant success at the negotiating table. Data compiled by the American Progress Centre shows that more than half (52%) of corporations don’t agree to a union contract within one year, and 30% don’t agree to a contract within three years.
On the positive side, workplace actions for the first time since the 1980s are finding support from political leaders: US President Joe Biden has announced his intention to be the “most pro-union president leading the most pro-union administration in history” and of course, Democratic Senator Bernie Sanders, always a supporter of worker movements, urged the audience in Chicago to “seize the moment”.
What is notable is that workers that are still unorganized are finally making progress: Starbucks, as I mentioned above, but also notably, Amazon and Apple workers: They have scored wins in workplaces that up to now had been considered unorganizable.
This is of course only the first step, the next one is to engage in negotiations and actually obtain a concrete improvement in work contracts. (Disclosure: I personally have experienced how difficult that first step can be: In the 1970s, in Chicago, I worked at Harper & Row, a school textbook publisher at the time – the ownership has changed since then -, and I found that when I suggested to my colleagues that we organize to obtain better pay, I was either ignored or my suggestion rejected. I soon realized that most of them feared losing their job and had no intention to organize in any union whatsoever.)
Perhaps the single most amazing win this year happened in May when Amazon workers voted to unionize at an 8,300-employee Staten Island warehouse in New York City. This was unanimously considered a watershed for the US labor movement. Unsurprisingly, Amazon management is challenging the election’s results.
“The following weeks [after the election] there was euphoria,” Will Weiss, an Amazon worker at the Staten Island facility and an organizer with the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) told DW. He said that the union victory came from the workers themselves “having one-on-one conversations with workers, disrupting captive audience meetings.” (Note: a “captive audience meeting” is one in which employers express their opinions about unions, often with assistance from hired anti-union consultants; and the disruption came from workers in the meetings pointing out any informational inaccuracies coming from the management).
On July 5, Trader Joe’s workers in Massachusetts announced that had set an official union election date — a vote set for July 27 and 28 that could produce the company’s first-ever union like Amazon Labor Union, with the goal to form an independent union, with no affiliation to established labor unions.
Workers at Trader Joe’s have complaints about their workplaces that are similar to those of unionizing workers at places like Apple, Starbucks and REI. “Over time, Trader Joe’s has slashed benefits, retirement benefits in particular,” Minneapolis Trader Joe’s worker Sarah Beth Ryther told More Perfect Union. Ten years ago, the company offered a 15 percent guaranteed retirement contribution, but that benefit has been slashed to zero — what the company calls a “discretionary contribution”, she said.
What is new about this unionizing movement in the US is that instead of being led by union leaders coming in from outside to organize the workers as had always been done in the past, it’s the workers themselves who come together without any outside interference or leadership.
And it is not happening only at Amazon but at Starbucks too. While Starbucks Workers United is not independent, it is noteworthy that its parent union, Workers United, has taken a backseat, providing the necessary resources rather than leadership.
In the UK: Last week, on July 7, Unite the union has announced that it has won an extra cost of living pay increase for the lowest-paid at the bank Natwest. This is an additional 4 percent salary increase that will help some 17,300 employees. Caren Evans, Unite national officer, said: “While the bank’s offer does not meet in full all that Unite requested, this is an important first step. Unite will continue to press for a pay increase for the remaining employees who also need support during these challenging financial times.”
A threatened BA strike of the check-in personnel at Heathrow airport was also suspended last week after the airline made a “vastly improved” offer. Originally, the company had offered a one-off bonus payment for 2022 worth 10% of pay but that had been rejected; instead, a package was agreed with the Unite and GMB unions that sources said in effect met its demand to restore the 10% pay cut introduced during the pandemic.
This follows a similar big win four weeks ago at Gatwick airport where workers won a 21% pay increase.
Earlier, Unite had also won at another airline, SAS, scoring an 18 percent wage hike for cabin crew working at Heathrow for the airline. However, SAS is facing financial troubles caused by the Covid-induced collapse in travel that began two years ago and may not be able to continue to meet union demands. Regardless, the mood is aggressive and the unions are determined to forge ahead.
In fact, as Politico noted last week, the “power dynamic between unions and airports and airlines has shifted in favor of labor” after years of Covid lockdown and disruptions.
Things have changed now that travelers are flocking back. Airlines that had cut back on personnel during Covid are now scrambling to find the needed staff.
This new situation in the transport industry puts unions “in an unusually strong position” to try and reverse pandemic-induced wage cuts. And more than that, union leaders feel they finally have now the opportunity to fight “decades of attrition from cost-cutting airlines” – some of it literally leading to absurd, miserly treatment of personnel: For example, some airlines even obliged their cabin crew to pay for their own bottles of water.
The Outlook: An uphill fight in the United States, easier in Europe
In the United States, the political environment is not supportive of the labor movement, despite President Biden’s positive pronouncements. Union membership rates are still declining according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, down to 10.3% in 2021 from its peak of 35% in 1954.
A new bill supported by President Biden, the Protecting the Right to Organize Act would make unionization much easier by expanding collective bargaining rights, eliminating barriers, and strengthening union election access. But the bill’s sponsors don’t have the votes to pass it in Congress.
Today, July 10, the news came in that public sector workers in Colorado won the right to unionize. Labor unions had been fighting to secure the right to unionize and collectively bargain for more than 250,000 public sector workers at cities, schools, colleges and counties in Colorado – one among 24 US States that do not allow their public sectors to unionize. Unfortunately, the workers in Colorado didn’t win the right to strike.
Also, a 2018 Supreme Court decision that allows employees to opt out of paying union dues or fees dealt a serious blow to public-sector unions. Gig workers likewise took a hit in 2020 in California when they were exempted from many employee benefits and rights.
And now, the looming economic recession could hurt labor’s recent advances. However, the recent experience with pandemic-induced firing and pay cuts, especially in the services and hospitality industries, might mean that people won’t tolerate the cavalier treatment they suffered during the pandemic and might be more ready than ever to unionize and strike.
There are a couple of positive factors that could, over the long run, spell lasting change.
In contrast to the past, now it is young Americans who are favorable to unionization. According to a recent study by the policy institute American Progress that drew lessons from the recent labor wins, 69% of young workers view labor unions favorably, saying “labor unions have a positive effect on the country”. Also, almost half (48%) of American non-unionized workers said they would join a union if they could.
But they will unquestionably face strong pushback from corporations that try everything they can to stop their workers from joining unions. According to the American Progress Centre, 75% of them hired anti-union consultants and spent $340 million annually on such “union avoidance” consultancies.
By contrast, the outlook for workers is rosier in the UK and Europe where worker movements have historically been strong.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by Impakter.com columnists are their own, not those of Impakter.com. — In the Featured Photo: Solidarity demonstration with “Starbucks, Amazon and all workers organizing!” photo taken in Philadelphia on Feb 26, 2022, Source: Flickr