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

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It’s been a first year for the US labor movement, successfully voting to unionize the first Amazon warehouse, the first Apple Store, and the first Trader Joe’s, Chipotle and REI locations. For union organizers, the most promising are victories in approximately 250 Starbucks stores.

The labor movement continued to gain ground this fall despite a high-profile union defeat at an Amazon warehouse in Albany, New York, last week. After 21 months of strong job growth, the tight labor market over the past year has led to an unusual shortage of workers in many industries, giving workers more leverage over employers.

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

This year, unions have other objective indicators of increased enthusiasm. National Labor Relations reported a 53 percent year-on-year increase in union election petitions over the past 12 months. Meanwhile, more Americans say they support unions than seen since 1965.

“At a time when most institutions, including the Supreme Court, are becoming less popular or less trusted, unions are at their highest level of popularity in decades,” said David Weil, the Labor Department’s top wage and hour regulator under President Barack Obama. . “We are definitely seeing unrest coming out of the pandemic. The willingness of working people to show dissatisfaction is greater.

However, as the economy heads into recession in the coming months, the window to consolidate more wins could shrink. Jobs are already down, and some companies — especially in tech and interest-rate-sensitive industries like mortgage financing — have ordered freezes and layoffs, raising concerns that the pro-worker power paradigm could 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. “During this period, the unions are trying to achieve a real and sustained invasion. This will change in 2023 and will almost by definition lead to a reduction in the bargaining power of workers.

For now, the pace appears to be accelerating in certain industries, with Amazon warehouses in Atlanta, Joliet, Ill., and San Bernardino, Calif., last week. Home Depot in Philadelphia could become the company’s first unionized location next month. and workers at Trader Joe’s in New York will vote on whether to make it the company’s first unionized store in that particular region. Quality assurance testers at Blizzard Albany, a subsidiary of gaming giant Activision Blizzard, will vote on whether to join a union. The state can also get its own November only union strip club.

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

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It is unclear whether these developments will increase the number of unionized workers. Last year, despite polls showing increased enthusiasm for organized labor, union membership in the United States fell to 10.3 percent of U.S. workers after a surge the year before due to the pandemic.

Labor issues go beyond labor market softening, as companies like Amazon and Starbucks have had success fighting union efforts with sophisticated anti-union campaigns.

Amazon workers near Albany, NY vote against unionization

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

Workers in unionized stores also tend to be younger, more educated and politically left-leaning, experts said. Ruth Milkman, a labor sociologist at the City University of New York Graduate Center, said interest in unions among young, college-educated people has been quietly building for years, particularly in the media and in higher education, but it’s only recently gained national attention because companies like , such as Starbucks, extensive measures were taken.

These workers are performing “which is worse than what they expected or wanted to get,” Milkman said. “It is true that the scale is modest. However, this is very significant and unprecedented.

A number of obstacles that could emerge in the coming months could dampen union momentum.

For example, if the Republicans Good luck in next month’s elections, organized labor could 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 union dues. Such measures usually correspond to a decline in union membership.

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More importantly, most economists agree that the economy is tight on days when the labor market is tight. Every week, more economists are predicting a recession in 2023 as the Federal Reserve raises interest rates to control inflation, 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 Shirholz, president of the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank in Washington. She said workers tend to be more emboldened to unionize during periods of low unemployment and high job availability. “The consequences of taking the risk to unionize are smaller when there are many jobs available,” Schierholtz said.

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Recessions and other economic downturns are often associated with a decline in union activity and popularity—with a few notable exceptions, such as the Great Depression. For example, union approval ratings in the United States fell to their lowest point in 2009, when unemployment was at its highest since the Great Recession.

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

Labor and employment experts hope that a non-catastrophic economic downturn will not dampen enthusiasm for labor activity and workers’ willingness to demand more.

Weil, an Obama-era labor official, said that while previous historic recessions have resulted in less union activity, the current era of labor relations is different from the Great Recession of 2008 and the dot-com bubble of the early 2000s.

“Neither side of the recession did we see the kind of increase in labor force activity that we’re seeing now,” Weil said.

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

“If the economy really takes off, that’s a different story,” said Thomas Kochan, professor of industrial relations at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. “Everyone will be really concerned about job security.”

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

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

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Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.

“We are pleased that our team in Albany had the opportunity to hear their voices and that they chose to maintain a direct relationship with Amazon, as we believe this is the best solution for both our employees and our customers,” said Kelly Nantel. , an Amazon representative.

The National Labor Relations Board is investigating 27 allegations of unfair labor practices brought by a union against Amazon in Albany. A recent lawsuit alleges that Amazon suspended an employee after he complained about being harassed during the election by anti-union consultants hired by Amazon.

The independent union has faced growing pains as it has tried to expand beyond its initial victory in Staten Island without significant funding or the personnel and legal resources of the established national union. The union, which says it has several hundred thousand dollars in its budget, is still battling Amazon over certification and a contract for 8,300 workers at the Staten Island warehouse.

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

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Other groups around the country are trying to form independent unions. Workers at Home Depot in Philadelphia want the company to address deteriorating working conditions caused by labor shortages and understaffing, according to Vince Quiles, 27, the Home Depot’s unionization manager in Philadelphia.

Home Depot has an open-door policy to ensure employees can bring their concerns to management, company spokeswoman Sarah Gorman said. She said Home Depot respects the right of its workers to unionize, but does not see collective bargaining as a solution to workers’ concerns.

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

“I saw something [Amazon Labor Union] it could have been done in Staten Island,” Quiles said. “I think if they can do it with 8,300 Amazon workers, then we have the ability to do it with 300 people.”

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