US trade unions and alternative voices for work

In polling data, Americans offer strong support for unions. But in practice, the share of US workers belonging to a union has been declining for decades. How will these conflicting tensions be resolved?

A report by an interdisciplinary group of union-friendly labor market researchers under the auspices of the Worker Empowerment Research Network explores the current state of “organizational efforts and collective action by US workers” (June 2022). Specifically, the report is co-authored by Thomas A. Kochan, Janice R. Fine, Kate Bronfenbrenner, Suresh Naidu, Jacob Barnes, Yaminette Diaz-Linhart, Johnnie Kallas, Jeonghun Kim, Arrow Minster, Di Tong, Phela Townsend and Danielle Twist.

Here is the data from the Gallup poll on the share of Americans who claim to approve unions. It has often approached 60%, the most recent poll (available just a week ago and not shown in this chart) puts support at 71%.

Additionally, a substantial proportion of US workers say they want to have more say in their jobs.

However, the share of US workers belonging to a union peaked in the late 1940s and early 1950s at about one-third of the workforce. Here is the share of U.S. private sector workers belonging to a union since the early 1970s:

There are a number of possible explanations for this gap between what would appear to be support for trade unions and what trade unions can provide and actual union membership. Those who support trade unions often point out that US labor law can make it difficult to organize and win union elections in a given workplace. According to international standards, the legal rules for union formation are objectively more difficult in the United States than in most other high-income countries. However, it also seems true that many American workers who support unions in the abstract are far less favorable to unions in their workplace and often seem wary of whether an official union will focus and make progress on the day-to-day issues that matter to them as workers.

Given the steady downward trend in unionization rates over the decades, it seems unlikely that the current US legal framework for unionization will lead to a revival of American trade unions anytime soon. Indeed, the deeper issue here may be that the US legal framework for unionization is establishment based, i.e. it focuses primarily on workers who share a common position by voting for a union. For a company with many different locations, a current example is Starbucks, each location must vote for a union. In contrast, existing labor law regarding unionization is not centered on groups of workers: say, contract workers, part-time workers, domestic workers, contract professors and graduate students, agricultural workers, middle managers level and others. The report notes:

A number of unions and other workers advocates argue that attempting to organize large multi-site employers one place at a time is not a viable way to engage them in dialogue and / or negotiations on issues that concern workers. This has led to a series of different protests, mobilization of efforts and political campaigns for new targeted regulations
gaining a voice in corporate decision-making and governance processes, where key strategies and decisions for employment and work are made. So far, very few of these efforts have been successful in bringing workers and management representatives to a table for dialogue. Which steps, through public policies, private actions and / or dialogue between representatives of companies and workers at the company, the sector or
could national levels explore ways to promote some forms of engagement?

When the report refers to a series of efforts, what kinds of things do they have in mind? Here are some examples of institutions that try to voice concerns at work, but don’t involve an American-style dues-paying union based in a particular location:

Worker centers are “community-based mediation institutions that provide support and organize themselves among communities of low-wage workers. … Although the workers’ centers were founded in the 1980s and 1990s, their number began to increase substantially in the late 1990s. In 2005, there were at least 135 active worker centers in the United States, up from about 30 in 1992. At the end of 2018, there were at least 234 active worker centers in the United States and we have identified 12 new centers that have emerged. ever since then.

An important example of a targeted campaign that relies on political mobilization is Fight
for $ 15. Started by a group of fast food workers in New York City in 2012 with extensive financial and organizational support from SEIU and Change to Win, Fight for $ 15 now operates in over 300 cities and six continents. The campaign has spread beyond fast food
include other low-wage workers such as home aides, airport workers and contract professors. It is based on city and regional organizing committees that mobilize short strikes in order to create political leverage and change the low-wage work narrative.

Founded by Sara Horowitz in 1995, Freelancers Union is one of the longest standing employee advocacy organizations that does not seek formal collective bargaining rights. A multi-professional professional association that promotes the interests of
Self-employed through advocating policies, providing benefits, resources and building communities, the Union of Freelancers has more than 500,000 members
nationwide. In recent years, the Union of Freelancers has pursued a series of policy support campaigns for independent contractors, including the 2017 enactment of the
Freelance Is’t Free Act in New York City protects independent contractors from non-payment and the inclusion of self-employed workers in pandemic unemployment benefits authorized in the CARES Act of 2020.

Coworker.org, founded in 2013, is a peer-based digital platform that provides online resources to engage workers in workplace petition campaigns and other empowerment strategies. Coworker.org’s petitions site empowers workers to exercise their voice and push for better working conditions, as well as raise awareness of issues and challenges within specific worker communities. Coworker.org supports the collection of signatures among employees in organizations and also provides resources such as training, funds and communication spaces that aim to help workers maintain large decentralized networks in the workplace. According to Michelle Miller, the co-executive director of Coworker.org, the first two months of the pandemic saw a sharp increase in worker activity on the site. While dedicated to serving all types of workers, past and current organizational activities on Coworker.org have mainly taken place in the low-wage services and retail and technology sectors. Over 700 campaigns were listed on his site in the preparation of this report. The petitions cover a range of issues, including wages and benefits, health and safety, coronavirus, hiring and firing, paid sick leave, scheduling, dress code, staffing levels, workplace discrimination and harassment, training and development and parental leave.

As a result, the organization among gig workers has increased as these workers push for improvement
working conditions. Rideshare Drivers United, Gig Workers Rising, Gig Workers Collective, New York Taxi Workers Alliance, We Drive Progress and Mobile Workers Alliance are examples of worker advocacy organizations forming among workers providing services for app-based platforms such as food delivery and ride hailing.

The report offers a number of other examples of this type of organization, as well as examples of situations in which substantial groups of workers carried out a “sickout” or protest to express their point of view, outside the standard union framework. As already mentioned, “very few of these efforts have been successful in bringing workers and management representatives to a table for dialogue”, at least so far.