Workers are organising at some of the world's biggest firms
Recent victories for unions at Amazon, Starbucks and Apple stores suggest to some a resurgence of America’s long declining labour movement. Amid deepening labour shortages, soaring rents and more concern about class divides, this could be a time for a union renaissance — especially for large, well-financed firms.
The politics will be complex. Democrats, traditionally pro-union, face an embarrassing conundrum, since the companies most likely to face continued union drives — Amazon, Apple, Google and Starbucks tend to be among their big money funders. The recent Amazon vote of a union in one of the company’s high pressure, tech-monitored warehouses was also a slap in the face for Jeff Bezos, a key funder of progressive causes and owner of the gentry liberal mouthpiece, The Washington Post.
On top of these political challenges, the pandemic has had a mixed effect on union drives. Over the last two years, private sector union membership has actually declined, and younger workers’ total unionisation rates now approach 4% of the workforce. In 2021 strike activity was actually well below those of previous years.
But conditions could be changing, in large part due to a mounting labour shortage. U.S. population growth has dropped from 20% in the eighties to less than 5% in the last decade. What’s more, the number of new workers has fallen by two million over the past decade, creating what the consulting firm EMSI calls a “sansdemic” (i.e. without enough people). This could provide an ideal moment for unions to press their case that they do indeed generate higher wages; certainly the public is more supportive than in the past, with 65% favouring union efforts.
As the economy opens, there are massive shortages across the employment front — from nurses and delivery people to farm labourers, retail and hotel workers, truckers and restaurant workers. Nearly 90% of companies recently surveyed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce blamed a lack of available workers for slowing the economy, more than twice as many as blamed pandemic restrictions. Such labour shortages exert wage pressure, which has resulted in corporations like Target and Walmart announcing sweeping wage increases.
Should the executives of Apple and Amazon be worried? Even though 50% of tech workers are interested in joining a trade union, these attempts to organise have been going on in tech for decades with little success. Industries where workers can work remotely — unlike a coffee shop or a warehouse —are hard to organise, and many of the workers are rootless, young, and childless anyway. If Apple’s engineers unionised, it may simply lead companies to head for less union-friendly environments like Texas, or to the ultimate oligarchic paradise of China, where labour is suppressed by the Communist regime.
Yet despite the challenges, the movement to organise the big firms should be welcomed, at very least providing some potential pushback to the oligarch’s overweening power and hope to the beleaguered working and middle class. Better still, by imposing new costs and restrictions, unionization of big firms may provide a new edge for smaller competitors, who now may find it easier to expand against a more hobbled oligarchy, a benefit to us all.