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Rutgers professors comment on increased unionization following coronavirus pandemic

Unions are seeing increased organization efforts, as was the case in Albany, New York, where Amazon workers nearly voted to unionize earlier this year.  – Photo by Amazon Labor Union / Twitter

Starbucks stores, Amazon warehouses and many other private-sector companies participated in unionization voting this past year. With some wins and some losses, labor unions across the country have reached their highest approval rating since 1965, according to a Gallup poll.

This poll reported that 71 percent of Americans approve of labor unions, a 3 percent increase from 2021. Significant wins in the private sector with prominent companies like Amazon and Starbucks this past year contributed to the shift in unionization across the country.

"There's a new generation of workers who have discovered what it's like to have no rights on the job," said Susan Schurman, a distinguished professor in the Department of Labor Studies and Employment Relations. "They've discovered what workers have been discovering for generations: having a union and a labor contract gives you at least some influence at work."

She said that unions in modern corporations in the public sector previously had a hard time unionizing due to outdated tactics and that in order to unionize, organizations need to appeal more to younger generations.

“Younger workers don't want to be treated like adjuncts of machines — whether it's a commercial espresso machine or a forklift in a warehouse,” Schurman said.

The upheaval from younger workers' changing attitudes toward labor can be seen in various fields and sectors.

A month-long strike at St. Michael's Medical Center in Newark ended this summer after the hospital’s owners came to an agreement to increase pay and reexamine company health insurance as well as address staffing and safety issues.

“These are workers who were on the frontline of the pandemic, were already doing very stressful jobs, but very skilled jobs,” said William Brucher, an assistant teaching professor in the Department of Labor Studies and Employment Relations. "It's not just about money, but they're demanding that they have a voice in their jobs and in their working conditions."

He said that wins are just as crucial as losses in unionization efforts. For instance, in the case of the Amazon warehouse in Albany, New York, this past month, 206 individuals voted for unionization, and 406 voted against unionization.

Brucher said that 200 workers voting in favor of the union is still progress, especially because Amazon facilities around the country saw little to no union action in the past.

The drastic shift in unemployment during the pandemic created a power rift between employers and workers, which promoted union membership in notable companies, according to the Gallup poll.

Francis Ryan, an assistant teaching professor in the Department of Labor Studies and Employment Relations, said that health care workers became more aware of their value over the past two years.

“During the pandemic, many frontline service workers were increasingly aware of their vital status in the economy, and despite talk from the companies that employed them about how valued they were, this didn't always add up in terms of pay and working conditions,” he said.

Ryan said that the increase in unionization is a reaction to the poor treatment of workers who hope for better working conditions. Joining and forming unions has significant benefits, such as higher pay and employee benefits, as unionized workers are paid higher hourly wages than non-unionized workers, he said.

Brucher also said he thinks that employers who comply with unions have better working climates. The presence of unions may result in a steadier workforce with less movement of employees leaving and entering the company, he said.

Schurman agreed and said that entering a job with an existing union has more benefits than risks. Though, attempting to form a new union at a non-union location risks the employees’ position at the company.

“It's a very difficult, dangerous thing for people to do because the ... employer holds virtually most of the cards because they can violate the labor law at will and fire people with essentially no penalty,” she said.

She said when a company wrongfully fires someone, the company is only required to pay the ex-employee back pay. The burden is disproportionately on the former employee who now must find new employment, and this results in a greater risk for workers trying to form unions than employers engaging in union-busting, she said.

Schurman and Brucher both said that the Democratic Party’s control over the legislative system will affect the status of unions and future laws surrounding unionization.

Brucher said changes in political party control or an increase in unemployment might also affect the future of unions.

“(Unionization efforts) could get worse under worsening circumstances … but I think it's grown from last year to this year, and I don't really see it stopping,” he said.

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