Amazon got lucky. Right in the nick of time, when unions began declining and worker power dramatically dropped, Amazon rose. Since the conception of the trillion-dollar giant, union membership has decreased every single year. Is that really a surprise? With less manufacturing, industrial, and hands-on jobs, we expected fewer workers to be united. Ignoring unity, though, has accrued costs to millions. Throughout history, unions have negotiated higher wages, lower work hours, and safer work conditions. One measure of evaluating union success is by comparing CEO salaries and worker salaries. In 1965, on average, a CEO made 21 times more than a worker. Not too bad. Today, CEOs are paid 351 times more than a worker — a 1322% increase since 1978. The tides of weakened unions reflect unhappy, impoverished workers and, meanwhile, thriving CEOs. Of the 900 unions that tried to negotiate, less than half received contracts; many were insufficient.
The federal minimum wage remains $7.25, an unforgiving amount in an age of inflation. Under this wage, adults who work 40 hours can cover less than half of their expenditures. And without the robust strength of unions, these payments stay stagnant, and employees feel discontent. Unsafe and unrelenting working conditions, too, were unable to fade with frail unions. Especially in Amazon warehouses, workers are strained and put in danger, lacking autonomy to fight this corporate injustice. All hope is not lost. The workers who organized Amazon's first union at Staten Island commanded America’s attention and worried Amazon. Astonishingly, this was the first union formed for the largest employing corporation. Pent-up anger exploded into a full-fledged union. Frankly, this was long overdue. Employees were overworked every day only to reap a sliver of Amazon’s success. They kept Amazon up and running but could barely make ends meet. Jeff Bezos never injured his back or almost died in an Amazon Warehouse, and yet he earns more in one second than workers do in entire weeks.
Baristas are also making a comeback. When the first Starbucks store unionized last year, it set off a chain reaction. Now, over 17 other locations have voted to unionize, and 170 others are looking favorably toward collective bargaining. Such strides are incredibly admirable because food industries like Starbucks can readily replace non-compliant workers and crush unions. So how did workers do it?
Workers gathered together in the toughest of times. Unlike the rest of our nation, at the pandemic’s height, workers became closer with each other. They shared concerns, interests, and troubles — the embodiment of much-needed unity.
Workers exposed Starbucks’ Scam. Recently, Starbucks increased its average wage to $17. Encouraging, right? No. At the same time, Starbucks cut back on work hours. Since employees couldn’t work as long, they couldn’t make as much money. As work hours shorten, fewer workers have access to health insurance as well. Unionized workers concluded that Starbucks’ “$17 wage” was a shameful publicity scheme.
Workers denounced Starbucks’ alleged “progressive policy.” Starbucks claims itself to be a liberal institution by endorsing BLM and LGBTQ rights. This becomes questionable when the coffee company calls the police on Black Customers, labels Hispanic customer’s cups with derogatory names, and offers substandard gender-affirming insurance. If Starbucks wants to be progressive, fixing these issues should be at the forefront. Workers demand action.
The upper echelons of Starbucks must be alarmed, perhaps even petrified of the future. Starbucks requested NLRB to delay union certification. Starbucks glittered its website, “We Are One Starbucks,” with propaganda to encourage employees to vote against unions. Starbucks even went so far as to fire employees suspected of union activity in Memphis, Ohio.
Unions are by no means evil and, in fact, will better the lives of the Starbucks workforce. Hence, there's little question that Starbucks is trying to preserve its top executive’s salaries and unequal practices.
These sparks of success, of course, should be taken with a grain of salt. And they certainly do not excuse the multifold issues with organized labor. Very easily could success come to a grueling halt.
First, our laws aren’t being enforced. The National Labor Relations Act criminalizes employers who “intimidate, coerce, or fire workers in retaliation for participating in union-organizing campaigns.” As seen in the case of Starbucks, massive corporations are firing union-advocate employees. Only one in five of such instances is punished by federal review. Furthermore, the punishment for union-busting is minor, serving as a failed disincentive for firing pro-union employees.
Second, National unions such as the AFL-CIO could do much more to reach out to workers. Take the medical sector: there are around 5 million unorganized workers in hospital systems alone. The severe lack of efforts to build from the bottom up demonstrates why unions haven’t made a comeback earlier. National, large-scale unions need to do more. Furthermore, if national unions don’t step up their game, workers won’t wield power to influence politicians on both sides of the spectrum. In other words, weak, dismembered unions cannot compel lawmakers to aid the workers who are exiting the pandemic.
Finally, gathering white-collar workers has always been a challenge. Because tech and non-industrial companies don’t involve harsh labor or life-threatening wages, non-factory or white-collar workers don't unionize. However, this doesn’t mean that white-collar unions shouldn’t exist at all. The middle-class in Silicon Valley and Google suffer sexual harassment and unhinged treatment, which is often mishandled. Unions can temper company behavior and contour the workplace ethics — they aren’t just for blue-collar workers.
With a war devastating Ukraine and soaring prices, the world is concerned. Truthfully, there is little you can do to help — that is, directly. Donations and information are imperative. But at the end of the day, one donation cannot bring peace to war or end inflation.
With unions, you can do a lot more. Join a union. Spread the word to friends, families, and colleagues. One addition to labor organization — or better yet, many additions — could make all the difference and bolster the domino effect of union membership. Besides benefitting your work conditions, you'd expand coalitions and subsequently save millions of new workers by joining a union. For reference, Indeed and UnionPlus detail excellent first steps for joining a union.
Biden promised to be the “most pro-union president.” Thus, we should expect our policy to see change. So far, it has been created but not enacted. The sweeping “Protecting the Right to Organize Act” plans to do a few things: (1) Eliminate anti-union employer intimidation, (2) Prevent immigration status threatening, (3) Make negotiations quicker, easier, and less prone to resistance, (4) Tighten punishments to hold companies accountable. Through the eerie example of Starbucks, companies still manage to intimidate and fire union-enthusiastic employees. This act would stringently punish Starbucks. More expansively, a higher federal minimum wage, worker rights, and a constitutional amendment for the right to organize would spawn impactful reform.
Unions are a financial lifeline to workers around the nation. Yet their massive plummet in the 70s was not permanent. We are in a historic period — one that will undoubtedly make it into the textbooks. 48% of nonunion workers said they would join a union tomorrow if they could. The opportunity is clear-cut: must broaden unions and then save millions from a dark future. Amazon and Starbucks workers took the first step. Policymakers, national unions, and you must take the next.