Friday, July 15, 2022

Unions in 2022 at Amazon and Beyond: Where Have They Been Going, and Where From Here?

Since the time when labor unions were needed for the likes of getting workers’ widows paid for the days when they died on the job, they have taken a long fall in value, constructiveness, and membership, which has fallen from a high of 34% of private-sector workers in the 1940s to 6.3% two years ago.  While participation among government positions has grown significantly, it is not the same, as those workers do not have to deal with people whose own success is tied to cutting costs.  But could unions be coming back?

The main reason they have declined is workplace conditions, which, with physical safety, compensation, hiring practices, unemployment benefits, overall pay, and more, have improved vastly from the middle of the past century.  However, the possibility of worsening has never gone away.

The highest-profile company which has recently spurred its employees to organize into a union is Amazon, where, last year in Bessemer, Alabama, workers voted to start and join the independent Amazon Labor Union.  In the April 6th New York Times, Spencer Bokat-Lindell asked “Does the Amazon Union Win Portend a Comeback for Organized Labor?”  He attributed the effort’s success to problems with warehouse safety and organizers’ “deeply personal, grass-roots strategy,” coupled with TikTok promotional videos.  There have also been “recent union victories at six Starbucks coffee shops in Buffalo,” which may be joined by flight attendants, who also have long-time complaints about scheduling and compensation.  A cause of more, per Bokat-Lindell, could be “broader dissatisfaction with the economy,” including raises not matching inflation.

Those operating unions, who have not been in a mode of frequent successful organizing for decades, are learning from these experiences, as “Amazon Workers Who Won a Union Their Way Open Labor Leaders’ Eyes” (Noam Scheiber, The New York Times, April 7th).  As Scheiber said, the aforementioned previously unusual organizing techniques may spread to many more places.  Disagreements, conflict, and power struggles will certainly appear, but other victories, including “at the outdoor retailer REI,” will fuel interest in doing what seems to work.

One more factor feeding certain workers’ discontent was in the headline of “NY bill targets Amazon quotas,” by the Associated Press and published in the June 8th Times Herald-Record.  That company has been using “warehouse productivity quotas” which “log how workers pack and stow packages,” meaning that “if workers are inactive for a set period of time, the company’s “time off task” tool can ding them for taking too many breaks, which critics have blamed for the company’s injury rates.”  The law would require Amazon, in New York state, to share information on these measures and their use, and “would also prohibit employers from putting in place quotas that prevent workers from taking bathroom breaks or rest periods.” 

Another look at these events, from Daniella Genovese in Fox Business on April 27th, was “Why union efforts are sweeping the nation.”  It named organizing attempts “targeting” Apple also, and told us that “during the first six months of the 2022 fiscal year… unfair labor practice charges… increased by about 14%.”  A Stanford source considered as causes employees being “frustrated with how wealth is allocated under our current system,” and “longing for a sense of belonging and connection to others.”

On June 15th in The New York Times, Lauren Hirsch told us that “Weaknesses in the Social Safety Net Disrupt the U.S. Work Force.”  Participants in a Washington policy forum considered unions a worthwhile force against “monopoly power” held only by employers, a better choice than “more government standards” possibly leading to “government overreach.”  One more win took place in a surprising location and industry, as “Chipotle workers in Maine move to unionize, a first for the chain” (Ken Martin, Fox Business, June 24th).  That was spurred by “unsafe conditions,” and helped by locations being company-owned, a communications and opposition-identifying advantage not available at, for example, McDonald’s.

For almost 100 years, unions have offered their organizations to employees.  American business executives, especially those managing buildings full of relatively low-paid workers, are now on notice that changes originating with the Covid-19 pandemic, expected rates of pay on the upswing, inflation the highest in 40 years, and high employee awareness of workplace problems and inequities will bring them back if management won’t cooperate.  Financial strength, number of apparently happy workers, and overall size (Walmart was also named in at least one of these articles) will not protect them.  In short, it’s the 1940s again, and that’s healthy.  It is not the unions, or even the workers, who will decide how much organizing will take place later this decade – it is the employers.

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