Can learning labor history give us hope for the future of unions?
Yes Magazine, May 18, 2022
Organized labor is having a moment. In the last half-year alone, baristas at more than 200 Starbucks filed for union elections, software engineers at The New York Times formed the largest bargaining unit of tech workers in the country, and, despite pushback from the world’s biggest retailer, workers at a Staten Island “fulfillment center” voted to form the first Amazon union in the United States.
These are just a few of the labor stories that have hit mainstream news. After losing ground for decades, American workers appear to be fighting back against inadequate wages, subpar benefits, and consolidated corporate power.
That’s one way to interpret the spate of recent events. Cynics might point to data that shows labor unions in the U.S. actually filed for fewer new elections in 2021 than the year before, or that last year union density continued to decline along the same downward trajectory it has for decades. Others argue that toothless American labor laws combined with multinational corporate employers (Starbucks, for example, operates more than 9,000 locations in the U.S. alone) mean that individual groups of workers are unlikely to win gains without significant changes to federal labor law, mass disruptive actions, or both.