Years from now, we may look back on 2022 as the year when the labor movement began its resurgence, ushering in a new era of shared prosperity. Let’s hope so.
A strong labor movement is indispensable for having an economy that works for everyone, not just for corporate interests.
Unions raise wages for their members, which often has positive spillover effects for nonunion workers in the same industry. Unions also make the labor market more equitable for people traditionally shortchanged — Black and brown workers and women. And by increasing the share of the economic benefits going to the lower end of the income spectrum, they help shrink income inequality, resulting in positive benefits for society at large.
This year, workers have achieved major breakthroughs in terms of organizing — forming unions in places that seemed unattainable not long ago. Maybe the biggest splash came in April, when workers at an Amazon warehouse in New York voted to unionize. That coincided with a wave of unionization sweeping Starbucks. In Oregon alone, workers at 22 Starbucks stores have voted to unionize since April.
The flexing of labor’s muscle has spread well beyond these high-profile companies. The Northwest Labor Press has done a great job reporting on the many organizing efforts, increased demands and strikes by Oregon workers. The paper reports, for example, successful organizing efforts at Weyerhaeuser, Hillsboro Medical Center and Jim Fisher Volvo. Workers took action at more work sites in 2021 than in any of the previous 18 years, and activity in 2022 has already broken that record.
Right now, labor also enjoys the wind of public approval on its back. According to Gallup, 71% of Americans approve of unions, the highest level of support in over half-a-century.
These developments offer hope that the long and difficult stretch for organized labor may be turning a corner. Today, the share of workers belonging to a union is but a fraction of what it used to be, after decades of decline. In Oregon, where unionization levels have held up better than in the nation as a whole, the share of workers belonging to a union dropped from 34% in 1977 to a low of 15% as recently as 2018.
Since 2018, the unionization rate has rebounded some in Oregon, reaching 19% in 2021, driven by gains during the pandemic years.
Is this, at last, the turning point for organized labor? Time will tell. Nationally, the gains in unionization experienced in 2020 did not hold up, as 2021 brought a decline.
But the story in Oregon, so far, is more encouraging. Oregon bucked the national trend, seeing another uptick in 2021. The reason for this increase appears to be the worker organizing efforts we have seen across the state, combined with hiring at already-unionized work sites.
These figures, of course, don’t factor in the wave of organizing we have witnessed so far this year. But we have a long way to go to return to a healthier place, where workers have more say in their pay and working conditions. Getting there requires continued, courageous organizing, as well as fundamental changes in public policy.
The recent labor victories are remarkable, given the challenges workers face. Although it is illegal to fire workers for trying to form a union, such workers are routinely fired. Employers pay no penalty if they are found guilty, and they habitually use this tool to suppress organizing. Bosses use other tricks to derail organizing campaigns. Here in Oregon, businesses routinely bring out-of-state firms to disrupt workplace unionizing and instill fear among workers.
Despite the dirty tactics used by employers, workers have shown they are willing to risk their jobs to improve their situation and that of their co-workers. Sustaining recent successes will mean some tough days ahead.
It shouldn’t be this way. Oregon workers, and workers all across the nation, deserve to have their right to organize honored and protected. And as we look forward, we must work to reform our labor laws, so that they further — not hinder — workers’ desire to form a union.