Labor unions are having an incredible year

by Jim Begley

As the nation honors the incalculable contributions that organized labor has made to improve the lives of all Americans on Labor Day, there are encouraging signs that the labor movement has momentum on its side for the first time in decades. But can it be sustained to grow the labor movement, which has been in decline since its heyday in the 1950s?

Support of Unions
Fully 68% of Americans approve of labor unions according to a Gallup poll conducted in September 2021, the highest measured by Gallup since 1965. This positive sentiment is particularly evident among the surveyed 18- to 34-year-olds who delivered unions a whopping 77% approval rating.

One reason for the resurgence in labor’s popularity is the ever-widening wage gap between CEOs and the average worker.

Data from the U.S. Commerce Department shows that corporate profit margins are the largest they have been in 70 years. A recent study of 300 top U.S. companies published this summer by the Institute for Policy Studies found that in 2021, the average gap between CEO and median worker pay jumped to 670-to-1. That is not a typo:  The average CEO received $670 in compensation for every $1 the worker received. And that is an 11% increase from the 2020 ratio of 604-to-1!

Why now?
In addition, U.S. companies announced plans to buy back more than $300 billion of their own shares in the first quarter of this year, and Goldman Sachs has estimated that buybacks could top $1 trillion in 2022.

Simply put, the huge profits are going to CEOs and shareholders, not to the average worker.

As a result, exasperated workers are organizing throughout the United States, with successful union efforts at more than 200 Starbucks across the nation, the historic unionization victory at an Amazon warehouse on Staten Island, the first-ever unionization of an REI store, wins at two Google Fiber stores in Kansas City, a growing effort to organize video game companies and Apple Stores, and undergraduate student workers at Grinnell voting 327 to 6 to unionize, just to name a few.  

New data from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) shows the number of filings for union elections is up 56% from October 2021 to June 2022. As of May 2022, petitions for elections for this fiscal year have surpassed 2021.

This flurry of union organizing, led mostly by a new generation of leaders, is a natural reaction to the prevailing economic model that mistakenly holds the maximization of short-term profits for investors/owners as critical to the nation’s economic well-being.

Empowered Workers
Workers are choosing to unionize because organized labor is the most consistent voice for working people, union and non-union, in the nation.

Unions have fought to improve the rights and protections for everyone who sells his or her intelligence, experience, and strength to employers to earn a living.

Unions are the only institution in our economy whose purpose is to introduce meaningful democracy to the nation’s workplaces and to help wage earners attain the American Dream.

Tragically, the American Dream, our aspiration that when we work hard and play by the rules, we can get ahead so that our children will be better off than we are, is in jeopardy.

As President John F. Kennedy said, “Those who would destroy or further limit the rights of organized labor – those who would cripple collective bargaining or prevent organization of the unorganized – do a disservice to the cause of democracy.”

Our nation’s best hope to empower workers, level the economic playing field, and improve the lives of the working families, is through unions.

As history has proven, we all do better when we all do better.

About the author:
Jim Begley, PHR, MPA, is the Director of UNO’s William Brennan Institute for Labor Studies