Unions are taking full advantage of the Biden administration’s pro-labor policies to mount reenergized efforts to organize employees in a wide range of industries, but most particularly in the retail sector where it recently started enjoying some success.
“After years of declining membership, unions are redoubling their efforts to sell their product (membership) to ‘new’ economy customers,” say attorneys Eric Clark, M. Scott Young and Bret Vetter of the Thompson Hine law firm. “While unions have long targeted grocery stores like Kroger and SuperValu, they now are moving into the new economy by targeting employers like Amazon and Starbucks.”
Unions prevailed in 641 elections supervised by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) during the first half of this year, the largest number of victories for that six-month span in almost two decades, Bloomberg Law reports. Unions successfully organized 43,150 workers from January through June 2022, compared with 36,942 for all of 2021.
Of the union victories in elections covering more than 1,000 workers, Amazon.com Services had the most at 8,325 workers. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology was next, with 3,823 employees, followed by Kaiser Permanente with 1,902 and Stanford Health Care with 1,450 new unionized workers.
Two hundred of the union victories for the first half of the year were among Starbucks employees. These victories added only 5,313 workers to the ranks of unionized labor, however, because the average bargaining unit for a Starbucks cafe is 27 people.
Nonetheless, unions are continuing to target retail operations, and a new rule recently proposed by the NLRB could end up broadening the definition of joint employer status and fuel further union efforts to organize franchise operations such as McDonalds.
For many years, unions also have focused on the distribution operations of major retail companies, which can be more attractive targets because that is where larger numbers of employees are concentrated in a single location, rather than normally only a handful in an individual store or restaurant.
The recent good news for the unions stands in contrast to their recent checkered past. In 2021, the number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions declined by 241,000 to 14 million, and only 10.3%. workers were union members.
Separating out public employee union members, only 6.1% of the private sector workforce belong to unions (the total number of government union workers is five times more than those in the private sector). In the 1950s total union membership exceeded 30%, including government employees.
Biden Boosts Organizing
Prior to the Biden administration, attempts to unionize retail operations had run into pretty much of a brick and mortar wall. A massive national and extremely expensive campaign to organize Walmart failed after years of effort. At one point it ended after the members of the union voted out the leadership that had pushed the effort (which has been quietly resurrected since then).
Although a massive pro-labor legislative bill pushed by Biden and the Democrats failed to pass Congress, the current administration has been highly vocal in its support of unions, and a presidential task force made up of top governments officials last year pledged to work together to advance the union cause, which they have continued doing this year.
In recent years, the unions have had more success—although it is still fairly limited so far—and better prospects in organizing retail support operations in terms of warehouses and distribution centers, and with newer brands, such as Starbucks, Target and Amazon, the attorneys note.
Unions have fared far better under President Biden’s strongly pro-labor administration. From Oct. 1, 2021, through March 31, 2022, the total number of union representation petitions filed with the NLRB increased 57% over the previous six-month period. The first Starbucks was unionized last December and since then workers at more than 250 Starbucks locations filed petitions to form unions. This nationwide union drive has created a confrontation between the coffee giant and the NLRB.
At one point, the head of the company gave substantial raises to employees of company-owned non-union stores (which are the vast majority of them) but not to employees at franchise stores, some of which had been unionized. The NLRB then ruled that denying the raises to union members was illegal, although their wages are supposed to be set through collective bargaining. Expect a long court battle over this issue.
A union drive that drew nationwide media attention was the organization of an Amazon fulfillment center on Staten Island, NY. However, not long after that happened a vote to organize another Amazon center on Staten Island failed. Other employers recently facing union representation campaigns include Trader Joes, Apple, Chipotle, REI and Lululemon.
Public support for unions only dipped below the 50% mark once, in 2009, but has improved in the 13 years since and now sits at a level so high that it was last seen nearly 60 years ago, according to a recent Gallup poll. About 71% of Americans now approve of labor unions, according to the survey mounted by the Gallup organization. Although statistically similar to last year’s 68%, it is up from 64% before the pandemic and is the highest Gallup has recorded on this measure since 1965.
How to Stay Union Free
When it comes to implementing a plan to remain union free, attorneys Clark, Young and Vette say non-union employers should keep an eye out for the signs that their worksites may turn out to be ripe for an organizing effort.
In spite of the upswing in organizing efforts, when it comes to union campaigns, as the saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. While unionization targets may be different, the main reasons for employees organizing a union remain the same, the attorneys point out:
1) employee perception of communication with management,
2) employee belief that they are being treated unfairly,
3) safety issues, and
4) pay and benefits.
Don’t wait to act until the organizing effort becomes visible, they urge, and make sure to take appropriate preventive measures as soon as you can. “Union avoidance efforts should be tailored to a specific workplace, but some recommendations remain consistent in every workplace,” they suggest:
Institute open-door policies. Employers that discourage, punish or ignore dialogue in the workplace are more likely to face concerted efforts from their workers. Employers should not only claim to have open-door policies but also be proactive in openly working through employees’ issues and encourage employees to be part of that dialogue.
Review employee handbooks. Employee handbooks must be carefully written to set forth the employer’s policies but must also not encroach upon employees’ rights, including those under the National Labor Relations Act. In addition, handbooks provide an opportunity for employers to set a positive tone with employees. While an “off the shelf” handbook may be legally compliant, employers should make sure their handbooks also convey other important information to employees that are specific to their business. An annual review of the handbook will help ensure it is keeping up with changes in the business and the law.
Safety first. Many recent organizing campaigns mounted by unions started with making highly visible concerns about the safety of working conditions. “All employers should develop and follow detailed safety policies that protect their employees’ well-being,” the attorneys advise Some of these concerns may have been exacerbated by management failing to provide adequate safety precautions throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Pay and benefits. Nearly every unionization effort cites wages or benefits that are perceived to be non-competitive or inadequate. Part of the efforts of Walmart and Amazon that seem to have helped with staving off unionization include substantial raises in pay and the innovative application of benefit packages.
“Employers should always be alert for signs of union organizing,” the attorneys stress. “As the unions expand their efforts to other industries, companies that have not historically had unions may become targets for organizing. And the most important union avoidance tool is also good business—companies should work to maintain healthy relationships between employees and management.”
When it comes to employees’ motivations for joining a union, they told Gallup in its most recent poll that the issues that are most important to them are better pay and benefits (65%) and employee rights and representation (57%).
More than a third of union members cite job security (42%) and better pension and retirement benefits (34%) as reasons for joining a labor union. Meanwhile, about one in four list improving the work environment (25%) and fairness and equality at work (23%).
Given the importance and emphasis placed on health and safety issues by unions when mounting organizing campaigns, it is revelatory to learn that few union members select health and safety (9%) or unions having a positive effect on the country (5%) as reasons to join a union.