According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the percentage of unionized workers fell from 20.1% to 10.3% from 1983 to 2021. When considering private-sector workers alone, the rates are even lower, dropping to 6.1%.
Despite these low unionization rates, there are signs the tides are turning. According to a 2022 Pew Researcher Center poll, 58% of U.S. adults say the decline in unionization is bad for the country, and 76% say it is bad for workers. Additionally, several major companies have seen a significant increase in unionization attempts. Most notably, more than 150 Starbucks locations have petitioned for union recognition and two Amazon facilities (Staten Island and Bessemer, Alabama) are having union votes this month.
The bigger question companies must answer is why employees are embracing unionization. Traditionally, unions fought for higher wages, access to health care, and safe working conditions. While these concerns still exist, Amazon facility workers are paid, on average, more than double the federal minimum wage, receive competitive health insurance, and have access to numerous benefits, including opportunities to own Amazon stock, participate in 401(k) plans with 50% company match, and enroll in paid life and accident insurance. For many employees, unionization is about improving existing compensation and benefits to align with the wealth creation that executives at the firm experience as well as address challenging work conditions (e.g., having to urinate in a bottle to meet strict time demands). If the movement was just about gross pay, highly compensated employees at Google would not also be looking to unionize.
With a tight labor market and growing disparity, employees are feeling emboldened to collectively bargain for things they want. The way employers are reacting suggests they may be missing the root cause of these efforts, and as a result, they likely will not prevail in the long-term.
Organizations have utilized a wide range of strategies to disrupt unionization efforts. One of the more popular tactics is to “inform” workers of the ways in which unionization could be bad for them (e.g., by leading to lower pay, reducing flexibility, creating conflict between managers and employees, etc.). According to the New York Times, Amazon has relied heavily on this approach, scheduling up to 20 meetings a day and paying consultants over $350,000 to sit in on labor board hearings.
Other companies have been accused of enacting more extreme measures. For example, Google recently settled a lawsuit with six workers who claimed they had either been fired or disciplined for their unionization efforts.
Rather than persuading workers unionization is against their interests or firing those who try to unionize anyway, Starbucks opted to implement measures that would if successful, decrease the chances that any given vote to unionize would be successful. They argued that individual Starbucks locations should not be allowed to unionize because their stores function as a cohesive unit. Because smaller groups are more likely to garner a sufficient number of votes, this restriction would have hindered unionization efforts had the National Labor Relations Board not rejected Starbucks’s argument in several rulings.
Is Wellness A Better Solution?
One perspective it to view union formation as a desire to secure or sustain wellness and protect workers’ rights. Given this general aim, one may wonder whether companies could address unionization efforts more effectively and ethically by ensuring employees’ wellness needs are taken care of.
The concerns workers have voiced appear to support this approach. For example, Starbucks employees list increasing minimum wage, sick days, hazard pay, and parental leave as some of the reasons behind their unionization efforts.
On the other hand, some companies have implemented measures to support workers’ financial, emotional, and physical wellness. Reggie Borges, communications director for the global communications team at Starbuck, tells the Washington Post that Baristas make $17 an hour on average and that those who work more than 20 hours per week have access to a range of benefits, including comprehensive health insurance, full tuition coverage for a bachelor’s degree, and paid parental leave. Target, Amazon, and Google showcase similar offerings.
For many employees, these updated benefits packages are not nearly enough. Target Workers Unite!, an independent initiative run by rank and file Target team members, states:
How is a starting wage of $16 supposed to match our ever-increasing costs of living? All the while we have to deal with the routine procedure of cut hours and shrunken payroll at the stores during Q1, which makes it even harder to afford our costs of living.
Of course, workplace wellness concerns can span far beyond pay benefits packages. Amazon has famously been accused of inhumane labor practices with much attention being directed toward its bathroom break policies. Michelle Valentin Nieves, an employee on Staten Island, tells the Times:
I went to the bathroom and had two managers hunting me down to see where we were. […] I feel like we’re in the Twilight Zone.
Others are motivated by the treatment of members of the LGBTQ+ community. Starbucks employee Angel Krempa states:
Women and the LGBT community have had their voices suppressed so many times, we’re the ones who are really standing up for everybody—not just ourselves, but everybody.
Clearly then, workers are reporting a variety of obstacles to wellness as reasons for unionizing. Addressing their concerns with a holistic approach to wellness that focuses on a wide range of wellness needs may be a more ethical and impact response. For example, employers can take their work-related stress into consideration by changing certain policies that cause stress (e.g., job security, excessive demands, etc.) as well as providing resources to help employees better manage stress. They can also create more inclusive work environments to increase psychological safety.
Each company is unique, as are the demands of their employees. There will be no one-size-fits-one solution, but regardless of the motivation behind the movements, employers must understand that employees feel something lacking in their jobs if they are willing to go through the unionization process, which takes time and resources and potentially may have them lose their job. If employees are willing to go to those lengths, companies should reflect on why. Rather than fight the voting process, employers can address the needs employees have that drive them to unionize.