Can the labor movement stay hot as the job market cools?

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It’s been a year of firsts for the U.S. labor movement, with successful votes for the union’s first Amazon warehouse, first Apple store and first Trader Joe’s, Chipotle and REI locations. Most promising for union organizers are victories at nearly 250 Starbucks stores.

The labor movement has continued to gain traction this fall despite last week’s high-profile union defeat at an Amazon warehouse in Albany, New York. With 21 months of strong job gains, the tight labor market has led to unusual labor shortages in many sectors over the past year, making workers more leveraged with employers.

“There’s a combination of things that have contributed to this organizing wave that we’re seeing, and the pandemic and the post-pandemic economy have been a big part of that,” said John Logan, a labor studies professor at San Francisco State University. said “It’s opened up opportunities for unions that didn’t exist before the pandemic.”

There are other objective measures of increased enthusiasm for unions this year. National Labor Relations reported a 53 percent year-over-year increase in union election petitions over the past 12 months. Meanwhile, many Americans say they approve of labor unions, not seen since 1965.

“At a time when many institutions, including the Supreme Court, are becoming less and less popular or credible, the popularity of unions is at its highest level in decades,” said David Weil, the Department of Labor’s top wage and hour regulator under President Barack Obama. . “We definitely see a disruption coming out of the pandemic. There is a great willingness of working people to show their displeasure.”

However, with the economy headed for recession in the coming months, the window to cement more victories could narrow. Already, job openings have fallen, and some companies — particularly in technology and interest-rate-sensitive sectors such as mortgage finance — have ordered hiring freezes and layoffs, igniting fears that the power paradigm in favor of workers may be short-lived.

“Workers have a lot of bargaining power, and that’s fueling the resurgence of the labor movement,” said Michael Strain, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. “Unions are trying to make real sustainable access during this period. That’s going to change in 2023 and almost by definition will lead to a reduction in worker bargaining power.

For now, the momentum appears to have accelerated in some areas, with walkouts at Amazon warehouses in Atlanta, Joliet, Ill., and San Bernardino, Calif., last week. A Home Depot in Philadelphia could become the company’s first unionized location next month, and Trader Joe’s workers in New York City will vote on whether to make the company’s first unionized store in that particular area. Quality assurance testers at Blizzard Albany, a subsidiary of gaming giant Activision Blizzard, will vote on whether to join a union. The country can also get it Union Strip Club in November only.

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Labor organizing efforts have also increased at Lowe’s, T-Mobile and Geico.

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It is not clear whether these developments will increase the number of union workers. Last year, despite surveys showing high enthusiasm for organized labor, union membership in the United States fell to 10.3 percent of American workers, following last year’s pandemic-related surge.

The challenges for labor go beyond the softness of the labor market, as companies such as Amazon and Starbucks have succeeded in combating union efforts with sophisticated anti-union campaigns.

Amazon workers near Albany, New York vote against the union

While Amazon unions have been a tough nut to crack, with just one union victory at a Staten Island warehouse in April, organized labor has made inroads across the retail and service sectors. Starbucks, Apple, REI and Trader Joe’s have had several union election successes this year. Labor experts say those retailers’ workforces are easier to unionize because their workplaces are smaller and less physically spread out than Amazon’s.

Workers at unionized stores also tend to be younger, more educated and left-leaning politically, experts say. Ruth Milkman, a labor sociologist at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, said a surge in union interest among young, college-educated people has been quietly taking shape for years — especially in the media and higher education — but it’s just that. Recently gained national attention due to high profile efforts at companies such as Starbucks.

Those workers are employed “below what they expected or aspired to,” Milkman said. “It is true that the scale is modest. However, it is extremely important and highly unprecedented.”

A number of disruptions that could emerge in the coming months could slow momentum for unions.

For example, if the Republican Do well in next month’s election, organized labor may face a less favorable environment. Tennessee has a GOP-backed ballot measure that would enshrine a “right-to-work” law in the state constitution that exempts workers from paying dues for union representation. Such measures usually coincide with a decline in union membership.

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More importantly, most economists agree that the economy is in the waning days of a tight labor market. Every week, many economists predict a recession in 2023, as the Federal Reserve raises interest rates to control inflation by slowing the economy.

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When employers have more power, it’s easier for them to retaliate against workers who try to organize, said Heidi Schierholz, president of the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank in Washington. Workers are more motivated to unionize during periods of low unemployment and high job availability, she said. “If there are more jobs available, the consequences of taking the risk to unionize are reduced,” Schierholz said.

The job market is slow, and this may just be the beginning

Recessions and other economic downturns often coincide with declines in union activity and popularity—with some notable exceptions, such as the Great Depression. For example, the approval rating of unions in the United States fell to its lowest point in 2009, at the height of unemployment following the Great Recession.

In the 1980s, aggressive interest rate increases by the Federal Reserve led to a prolonged period of high unemployment, contributing to a dramatic decline in union membership in the United States.

Labor and employment experts are optimistic that a non-catastrophic economic downturn will not dampen labor activism and workers’ willingness to demand more.

Weill, an Obama-era labor official, said that while union activity was down due to previous historic recessions, the current era of labor relations is different from the Great Recession of 2008 and the dot-com bubble of the early 2000s.

“On either side of those recessions, we haven’t seen the kind of uptick in labor activity that we’re seeing now,” Weill said.

However, a full-blown recession could lead to a decline in union efforts, they acknowledge.

“If the economy is really tanking, that’s a different story,” said Thomas Kochan, professor of industrial relations at the MIT Sloan School of Management. “Everybody’s really going to be concerned about job security.”

The Amazon labor union suffered a decisive 406 to 206 defeat in a high-stakes union election in Albany on Tuesday. Despite the defeat, workers seeking to unionize Amazon warehouses say they are undeterred.

They accused Amazon of engaging in an anti-union campaign to prevent “free and fair” elections. Union leaders said they were prevented from organizing in company break rooms during the Albany campaign, a strategy that was crucial to the union’s historic Staten Island victory in April.

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Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post.

“We are pleased that our team in Albany has been able to make their voices heard, and that they have chosen to have a direct relationship with Amazon, as we believe this is the best arrangement for both our employees and customers,” said Kelly Nantel. , an Amazon spokesperson.

The National Labor Relations Board is investigating 27 unfair labor practice charges that the union filed against Amazon in Albany. Amazon has recently been accused of suspending a worker after she complained about harassment at work by Amazon, an anti-union consultant, during the election.

The independent union faced growing pains as it tried to expand beyond its initial victory in Staten Island without adequate funding, or without the staff and legal resources of an established national labor union. The union, which says it has about a million dollars in its budget, is still fighting Amazon for certification and contracts at the 8,300-worker Staten Island warehouse.

Still, there are some signs that labor activity in the Amazon is cooling, with various labor organizations and unions taking their shots at organizing the nation’s second-largest employer. The Amazon Labor Union filed for its first union election on the West Coast last week at a warehouse in Moreno Valley, California.

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Other groups in the country are trying to form independent unions. Home Depot’s Philadelphia workers want the company to address worsening working conditions caused by labor shortages and understaffing, according to Vince Quiles, 27, a leader of the Home Depot unionization effort in Philadelphia.

Home Depot has an open door policy so employees can bring their concerns to leadership, company spokeswoman Sarah Gorman said. Home Depot respects its employees’ right to unionize, but does not believe collective bargaining is the solution to workers’ concerns, she said.

But Quiles cited the Amazon union effort in New York as an inspiration.

“What I saw [Amazon Labor Union] was able to do on Staten Island,” Quiles said. “I thought if they could do it at Amazon with 8,300 workers, we have a shot of doing it here with 300 people.”

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