Red-hot labor market has helped boost unions

Red-hot labor market has helped boost unions

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A red-hot labor market that has given workers more bargaining power with employers is fueling a string of recent union victories at high-profile American companies. Workers have voted to unionize for the first time in recent weeks at Trader Joe’s and Chipotle. Unions have also made significant inroads at Amazon, Starbucks, Apple and REI, employers that have long resisted unionization.

Behind these small but notable victories is renewed popular support among Americans for the labor movement: Seventy-one percent of Americans approve of unions, matching a 53-year high, according to a Gallup poll released Tuesday. .

The job market showed signs of continued strength in July, little changed compared to recent months, as US employers posted 11.2 million job openings, according to a monthly report released Tuesday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The number of people who quit their jobs remained high, though below its peak, at 2.7 percent, as a record number of Americans continue to reconsider their employment options.

The report offered signs that workers will continue to be emboldened to engage in workplace activism. And for now, the labor market remains a continued area of ​​strength for an economy that is showing some signs of deterioration.

“The labor market by conventional metrics is very tight. Hiring remains very high historically. Churn is very high,” said Guy Berger, chief economist at LinkedIn. “Workers see a lot of opportunities. The temperature of the labor market is still very high.

Economists say quelling recession fears has given employers renewed confidence in their ability to expand their workforce. Layoffs in July also held steady, with little sign of change from last year.

“In the short to medium term, if you’re a business and your foot was on the brake, you might be able to pick it up a little bit,” Berger said. “If people aren’t that worried, they won’t back down that far.”

What remains to be seen is whether the labor market will remain strong as the Federal Reserve pushes to cool inflation with interest rate hikes. In a speech in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, last week, central bank chief Jerome H. Powell acknowledged that rate hikes would likely inflict “some pain” on businesses and households and likely weaken the labor market.

Another employment report will follow on Friday, which should help give a clearer picture of the job market. The July jobs report surprised many economists: Employers added 528,000 jobs, shattering expectations. As the Fed begins to succeed in curbing increases in gasoline and food prices, the labor market is a bigger question. Some forecasters predict that Friday’s report will show a significant decline in job growth in August.

Economists say tight labor markets tend to give workers more leverage to form unions and demand higher wages and better working conditions, while recessions make workers less willing to make collective demands on their employers.

“Unless the labor market gets really cold, there will still be a lot of workers demanding collective bargaining power,” Berger said.

Still, even a cooling economy would not necessarily undo the cultural shifts that have resulted in the growing popularity of unions, particularly among young, college-educated workers.

“Could labor activism be affected by a slowdown? Of course,” said Julia Pollak, chief economist at Zip Recruiter. “When people are more nervous about the availability of alternatives, they are less likely to change their minds. Do I think this moment has caused permanent changes? Surely. Some of this will last.”

Despite a 56 percent increase in union election applications across the country in the first three quarters of fiscal 2022, labor experts say many of these victories in Major employers like Amazon and Starbucks are mostly tokens, covering a mere portion of these companies’ huge workforce. Meanwhile, although support for unions has risen steadily since the pandemic, union membership in the United States declined last year; only 1 in 10 workers is affiliated with a union. (Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

“There is still a huge disconnect between this recent organizing wave and long-term national membership trends,” said John Logan, a professor of labor studies at San Francisco State University. “The true meaning of these campaigns is not in the number of new members, which is quite insignificant, but in the enthusiasm, optimism and inspiration they generate in some sectors of the workforce, especially among young, politicized and educated workers. of low income. salaried services sector.

Atulya Dora-Laskey, a 23-year-old crew member at a Chipotle in Lansing, Michigan, who voted to unionize last week, said members of his generation support unions because of how “terrible” they are. their working conditions have returned.

“This seemed like an impossible task at first, and to have come this far is pretty incredible,” said Dora-Laskey. “We are facing many opposing forces and at the same time we are realizing that there are more workers than people who exploit us. That is the ultimate advantage. Through unionization, we have seen that power.”

But all the major companies that employ workers trying to organize have spoken out against unionization, and some have not moved to bargain collectively with unions after victories have been declared.

In April, workers at Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse voted to join an independent union, the first union victory at the nation’s second-largest employer. The victory came in a warehouse with some 5,000 employees. Still, Amazon refused to recognize the union and appealed the election results, and the case could linger in court for months.

Last week, a Chipotle location with 16 eligible union members in Lansing, Michigan, voted to unionize with the Teamsters. But Chipotle has roughly 3,000 locations across the country, and that victory is largely irrelevant unless it spreads.

Workers at Starbucks have gained more ground, successfully unionizing more than 220 locations and thousands of workers since the end of 2021, accounting for 31 percent of union election victories in the first half of 2022. But that’s still barely the 2 percent of the more than 10,000 locations in the United States.

Starbucks and CEO Howard Schultz have led a sophisticated campaign to derail the union campaign, insisting that bargaining take place store by store, a huge burden on the union, and arguing earlier this month that all mail-in elections should be temporarily suspended because of alleged misconduct by an official of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The union says the company has fired more than 75 union organizers. The NLRB charged Starbucks this month with illegally withholding raises and benefits from unionized workers to discourage union organizing, and a judge ordered Starbucks to reinstate seven fired union organizers at a Memphis store.

Tens of thousands more workers have voted to join unions this year than in 2021, according to the Bloomberg Act. Unions won 541 elections in the first half of 2022, covering more than 43,150 workers, the largest number of union victories in nearly 20 years.

But union membership continues to decline in the United States, despite victories that have drawn national publicity. It is unclear whether the surge in calls for union elections will undo that trend this year. And the Gallup poll that found record support for unions also found that most Americans who aren’t in a union say they’re “not at all interested” in joining one.

“If this wave of organizing translates into millions of new members, we need much stronger legal protection for the right to elect a union,” Logan said. “These kinds of campaigns on Amazon and Starbucks are also key to that. You will never get reform unless the public understands the issues, cares about them, and believes they have a stake in the outcome.”

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