Covid Upended the Labor Market, and Now These Workers Are Using Their Leverage to Push for Unions

Brendan Mcdermid | Reuters
  • Warehouse and store employees seeking union membership feel they have no seat at the table.
  • They're looking for better pay and working conditions, and they want a say with management in day-to-day operations. 
  • "I think young people are breaking away from the expectation of previous generations that this is the way it is," said one 22-year-old union member.

The Covid pandemic pushed Americans to reconsider how and where they work, resulting in a tight labor market, rising wages and what's been dubbed the Great Resignation. It also spurred workers, many of them younger, at big companies such as Amazon and Starbucks to flex their newfound leverage with union movements.

Warehouse and store employees seeking union membership feel they have no seat at the table. They're looking for better pay and working conditions, and they want a say with management in day-to-day operations. 

"Employees are feeling powerless, and this solidarity gives them some power," said Catherine Creighton, director of Cornell University's Industrial and Labor Relations branch in Buffalo, New York.

Emma Kate Harris, a 22-year-old retail sales specialist at the newly unionized REI Co-Op in Manhattan, has been with the company for three years, and she wants to see more understanding from her bosses.

"Our managers and higher management throughout the rest of the co-op don't necessarily understand what it is to actually be on the floor for 8½ hours a day for 32 or 40 hours a week," said Harris. Workers at the recreation and camping goods store organized with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, or RWDSU.

REI told CNBC in a statement it is "committed to sitting down in good faith to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement."

Then again, this isn't your grandparents' organized labor push. Young workers like Harris taking part are driven by a desire to improve the workplace, even if they might not stick around to see the changes come to fruition like union laborers of the past did. Some have little to no experience with unions prior to getting involved in campaigns, but they recognize their power in the current labor environment.

"I think young people are breaking away from the expectation of previous generations that this is the way it is. And I think that my generation is starting to look more at the way it could be and the way it should be," Harris said.

While it may seem like unions are surging again, however, the numbers tell a conflicting story about the state of organized labor in America. In 2021, the union membership rate for government and private sector employees fell to 10.3% from 10.8% in 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Private sector union membership fell slightly in 2021 to 6.1% from 6.2% the prior year.

But at the same time, American approval ratings of unions are near an all-time high. Gallup polling from September 2021 shows 68% of Americans approve of labor unions — the highest reading since a 71% approval rating in 1965. They're particularly popular among the younger members of the workforce. Adults ages 18 to 34 approve of unions at a rate of 77%.

Richard Bensinger, union organizer with Starbucks Workers United and a former organizing director of the AFL-CIO, told CNBC earlier this year the movement was a "generational uprising." The Starbucks union campaign, which began in Buffalo and has now notched eight wins in three states, has spread quickly to cafes across the country and is led by many workers in their early 20s, he said.

Isaiah Thomas is a warehouse worker in Amazon's facility in Bessemer, Alabama. The 20-year-old said he joined the company in September 2020 as a way to help pay bills and for his college education at the University of Alabama, Birmingham. But he told CNBC he took a semester off to focus on the campaign, which is also seeking to organize with RWDSU.

"I believe that, in order to bring about the change that I want to see, I have to be really involved in it," he said. "And when I saw this opportunity come about, and I knew that it would impact my co-workers in my own life very positively, I threw myself in and I've been going 100% ever since then."

The public part of the vote count in Alabama will happen later this week. "We look forward to having our employees' voices heard. Our focus remains on working directly with our team to continue making Amazon a great place to work," Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel told CNBC in a statement.

A second union voting drive is under way in Staten Island for Amazon workers.

How companies are handling it

Companies, particularly publicly traded firms, must strike a delicate balance when their employees start to organize. Not all shareholders will believe unionizing is good for the bottom line, while others will think employees should be treated more fairly, according to Peter Cappelli, professor of management and director of the Center for Human Resources at the Wharton School.

"The calculus that a company has to make on this, in this context where you could be more aggressive, and increase the probability of winning the election and damage your brands, how do you think about that, if all you're thinking about is, let's say, keeping your shareholders happy?" Cappelli said. "It's not an easy needle to thread."

Some companies take it a step further and hire consultants, such as Joe Brock, president of Reliant Labor Consultants. 

Brock was a former union president with a Teamsters local in Philadelphia. He said he became disillusioned with what happens behind the scenes with unions, particularly when contracts are being negotiated. He said companies sometimes call him proactively to make presentations to employees to discourage them from joining a union. Other times, they reach out to him after a campaign has started.

Brock resists the term "union busting" and described his job as something more nuanced.

"The threat of the union is a valid one, I think it causes a lot of workplaces to revisit policies and make some changes; I see it all the time," Brock said. "I also see where they don't address it, and they want me to come in and be the union buster, and my firm doesn't do that. We don't go in and lie to employees. We tell them that this could work out well for them. But it could also work out very poorly."

— CNBC's Betsy Spring contributed to this article.

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