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Union organizing soared in 2022, but companies pushed back

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

In the U.S., membership in labor unions peaked decades ago, but you wouldn't know it from the headlines of 2022. This year, a rare burst of union momentum produced some major victories, but also some losses and significant fights with employers. NPR's Alina Selyukh and Andrea Hsu have been covering these stories, and they both join us now. Hi there.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: Hello.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Hello. Hello.

SUMMERS: So Alina, union activity at two big companies grabbed a whole lot of headlines this year. We are, of course, talking about Amazon and Starbucks. Where do things stand?

SELYUKH: Yeah. Perhaps the most high-profile union successes of the year happened at these two companies. Amazon has never had a union in the U.S. Now, it's faced five union elections in less than two years. Only one warehouse has so far voted to unionize, though it is huge - more than 8,000 workers. It's on Staten Island. But then, to this day, there is no union contract in sight, which is the ultimate goal - right? - a collective bargaining contract to negotiate higher wages or changes to the workplace. Amazon is still legally challenging the very existence of this union itself - trying to overturn its victory.

Now, if we look at Starbucks, around 270 stores have voted to unionize. That is a huge nationwide footprint in a matter of a year, which did spread into kind of a groundbreaking year for retail and food workers. We saw the first unions formed at Trader Joe's, REI, Apple Stores, Chipotle. Still, like with Amazon, none of these new unions have reached a collective bargaining contract yet.

SUMMERS: Andrea, when I hear that, it sounds like there's really been a big flurry of activity this year. But I'd like to ask you - was there actually an increase in union elections in 2022?

HSU: Yeah, actually, we did see an increase. The National Labor Relations Board tracks all of this. So in fiscal year 2022, elections were up about 50% over last year. And one of the share of elections that unions are winning is also up. Public support for unions is at a 60-year high. But certainly, Starbucks is also a contributor. Starbucks accounts for roughly a quarter of all the union elections this year. And Workers United - the union there - has won about 4 out of every 5 elections. So they're driving up the average.

SUMMERS: And Alina, how have these companies been responding?

SELYUKH: Companies that are facing big organizing pushes have really stepped up their pushback against unions. Some are flooding stores with managers or even closing stores and firing pro-union workers. In some cases, they will also raise wages or add new benefits and try to argue, you know, that workers don't need a union in the first place. This has had some success. Starbucks, for example, did see a big slowdown in union petitions over the year. Organizers accused the company of delay tactics and union busting to discourage union support, which the company denies. Here's Jasmine Leli, a barista and organizer in Buffalo, N.Y.

JASMINE LELI: People are scared. I mean, we're scared. We're terrified. We just want to go to work like everybody else and do our jobs and not have to worry when the other shoe is going to drop.

SELYUKH: And a few workplaces have actually voted against unionizing, like a Home Depot in Philadelphia, a Trader Joe's in Brooklyn.

SUMMERS: OK, so we've talked about what's been going on in food and in retail. But Andrea, who else was organizing in 2022?

HSU: Well, some of the largest new unions that formed this year were at universities. MIT saw several thousand graduate student workers unionize in April. And there was also new union organizing in sectors where unions already have a strong foothold - health care, for example. We saw nurses, mental health practitioners, dieticians and speech pathologists joining unions. And then, a few weeks ago, United Autoworkers got a big win in Ohio at a plant making electric vehicle battery cells. It's co-owned by GM and the Korean company LG. Nine hundred workers there are now unionized, which is so important for the UAW, given the major job losses that are expected to come in the transition from gas cars to EVs.

SUMMERS: So this whole conversation leaves me wondering about wages and how union workers have fared in all of this.

HSU: Well, it has been interesting to watch collective bargaining play out with this backdrop of inflation. You know, some unions have been able to secure wage gains that keep up with inflation. Take rail workers, who threatened to strike twice this fall. And in the end, they didn't get everything they wanted in the final deal, but they did get a 7% raise for 2022 and a 4% raise for next year. And then there were the restaurant workers at the San Francisco airport, who did actually go on strike in September.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: On strike.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: SFO.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: On strike.

HSU: Those workers shut down most of the food and beverage options at the airport for three days, and they came out of it with a 30% wage increase over the next two years.

SUMMERS: Huh. So Alina, what if the economy goes south next year and there is a recession, as some have predicted? What do you think's going to happen with unions?

SELYUKH: The labor market tends to be one of the last to respond to, say, the Federal Reserve trying to slow inflation. So so far, what we're looking at is some big job cuts in the tech industry. And overall, data is starting to show companies are beginning to hire a bit less, fire a bit more. Now, if that turns into huge layoffs, economists say it's not a certainty that that would snuff out union enthusiasm. But historically, an economic downturn is not a great moment for labor organizing or pushing for big pay raises. So we'll have to see how next year changes people's sense of empowerment at work.

SUMMERS: That was NPR's Alina Selyukh and Andrea Hsu. Thanks to you both.

SELYUKH: Thank you.

HSU: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.
Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.