Sociologists Jasmine Kerrissey and Judith Stepan-Norris, co-authors of “Union Booms and Busts: The Ongoing Struggle over the U.S. Labor Movement,” look at the state of unions America and, for the first time in a long time, find reason for optimism.
It was 1894, the Gilded Age — a time of extreme inequality, foul working conditions, worker unrest and violent strikes. Congress created Labor Day, a national holiday celebrating workers and labor union
Labor Day alone didn’t change much. But from the 1930s through 1950s, labor unions were on the rise. One in every three workers were unionized, ushering in a new middle class, safety procedures and a voice at work, before membership declined again for decades. Today, only 1 in 10 workers are organized, and one-third of the country’s workers earn less than $15 an hour. Research suggests that union decline has contributed significantly to the rise in inequality.
But this Labor Day, for the first time in almost 25 years, union elections — events in which workers vote on whether to form unions — have increased significantly. Workers file for elections with the National Labor Relations Board, which governs most private-sector employees. Union election filings with the NLRB increased by 58 percent in the first three quarters of fiscal year 2022 (October-June), compared with the same period in 2021. Already, recent tallies estimate that more than 1,250 elections were held from October to August, more than were held during all of 2021. And unions have won the majority of these elections.
This past year has been different: Support for unions is surging. Both general approval of unions and union elections has been rising. In 2022, Gallup found that 71 percent of Americans approve of labor unions, the highest percentage since 1965. Gallup also found that over 40 percent of nonunion workers have some interest in joining one.
And workers are taking action. Interestingly, many are organizing in industries and companies that previously avoided union representation. Megacorporations, especially in retail, tech and service, have long kept out unions — until now.