Reviews | On this Labor Day, unions are more popular than they have been in decades
After a long period in which Labor Day became the occasion for union obituaries, 2022 marks a renewed public appreciation for collective action, collective bargaining and the idea of solidarity.
Work friends might well react by saying: it was about time. In truth, the new appreciation of what unions can achieve and what workers are entitled to expect has been built over a long period of time.
All public discussions of growing income and wealth inequality have proven to be much more than academic or ideological exercises. Workers have personally felt inequality – and are reacting to it.
The long-term impact of the economic collapse of 2008-2009, followed by the upheavals of the pandemic a decade later, swung attitudes from a celebration of pure market individualism in favor of labour.
Gallup found that union approval hit low points of 48% in 2009 and 52% in 2010. They have since risen — to 61% in 2017, 68% last year and 71% last week, a peak not reached since 1965.
At a time when so many attitudes are racially divided, Gallup found that whites and non-whites were equally supportive of the job. Approval spanned several generations – at 72% for those under 54 and 70% for those 55 and over. Support for organized labor, near unanimity among Democrats, is actually bipartisan: 89% of Democrats endorsed unions, as did 68% of independents and 56% of Republicans.
Opinion translates into action. Vox’s Rani Molla documented how well-publicized labor victories — at Amazon, Apple, Chipotle, REI, Starbucks and Trader Joe’s — are just the most visible part of a larger trend. (Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, owns The Post.)
Unions have won more representation elections in 2022 than they have won in nearly 20 years, Molla reported. Their success rate has risen from just over 50% in 2000 to 76.6% this year. And three times as many workers went on strike in 2022 than in 2021, she reported.
Another factor in favor of unions, as noted by Post labor reporter Lauren Kaori Gurley, is a “hot labor market that has given workers more bargaining power.” Young workers, in particular, are not burdened by past job failures and feel liberated by the availability of employment.
And “even a slowing economy,” Gurley wrote, “would not necessarily undo the cultural shifts that drove the growing popularity of unions, especially among young, college-educated workers.”
All of this is happening against the backdrop of an administration trying to live up to President Biden’s pledge to be “the most pro-union president to lead the most pro-union administration in American history.” .
Jennifer Abruzzo, the general counsel for the National Labor Relations Board, has been pushing to reverse rulings and practices that have hampered union organizing efforts in the past. And Katherine Tai, the United States Trade Representative, insisted on what she said last month at the United Steelworkers Constitutional Convention as a program “designed with workers, for workers.”
“Our trade policy,” Tai told the union, “cannot be a way to undermine workers’ rights and outsource jobs,” adding, “workers’ satisfaction is our top priority.”
A surge of new organizations will not undo years of union decline. Efforts to change labor laws to make it easier to unionize have failed even in Democratic-controlled Congresses. The new shape of the economy – with fewer manufacturing jobs on which workers built their power between the 1930s and 1960s – creates challenges that the movement has yet to master.
But the new workers’ history, based on an adherence to the promise of triumph through common struggle, runs counter to many tendencies in our politics, and it helps. Unions have the ability to bring Americans together across very deep divisions. Republicans have yet to shift their largely anti-working class policy stances to accommodate a new constituency that includes large numbers of working class voters. You would never know from the party’s hostility to the unions how sympathetic the GOP base is to what they do.
Labor Day is a celebration of workers and their dignity. So now is a good time to ask whether our country’s discontent should be channeled through culture wars and racial prejudice. Rising support for unions points to a different path, a practical quest to lighten daily burdens by improving wages, benefits and working conditions. It beats empty, angry, divisive demagoguery any day.