As we mark this Labor Day with a day off and a return to school, we take account of the American labor movement. Is what we’re seeing a resurgence of traditional labor unions, a dead cat bounce, or is it part of a larger shift of workers seeing “shared power”?
Some see the organization of Amazon, Apple and Starbucks workers as a resurgence of labor unions. Reconcile this with the fact that union membership is at a historical low – just over 10% among all workers, and within the private sector, barely 6%. It’s difficult to call anything a resurgence when 94% choose not to engage in that thing.
But to dismiss what’s happening as a dead cat bounce would be as wrong as those seeing a resurgence. These union drives are more about the rejection of traditional norms and a newfound worker activism with implications far beyond unions, as workers seek shared power and a voice at work.
A majority of adults see the decline of union membership as bad for the U.S. and working people. It is because of the labor movement that we have rules governing workplace safety, the 40 hour workweek, overtime, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and much much more.
The news media focuses on “unions” because that’s what many reporters — who are in unions — know. But in many cases, these are not traditional unions. Union drives at these top brands are succeeding, mostly because of an increase in activism by college graduates. They are home grown, company-specific unions. They are the rejection of tradition; the rejection of institutional unions as much as they are a rejection of the employer. And they’re not doing it the traditional way. Gone are the days of salts — paid union organizers — working on behalf of large, well funded unions. The organizing capturing today’s headlines are internal movements, led by employees who – while they may affiliate with an outside union — create and lead their own independent unions.
What is it these budding college-educated leaders seek? Of course there is always the call for better wages and working conditions. But at Amazon workers get relatively good wages, health and disability insurance, retirement savings plans, and company stock options. At Apple they get the same, plus steep discounts off all iDevices. At Starbucks, a job performed at many locations by high schoolers, begins at $15 an hour, plus tips, and health coverage for those working half time. This is a far cry from the assembly lines of 1935.
These workers seek a voice. They seek shared power with executive leadership. The same young leaders who protested in the streets in the summer of 2020 – the largest social movement in American history – have returned to work and are not ready to disappear quietly into their zoom screens. They seek transparency. They want social proof that their labor matters and that their leaders are worthy of their labor. They want to be heard. They are skeptical of performative DEI BS (as we all should be). They want to know what you earn and are willing to share their salary. They seek value and purpose. Board members and CEOs take note. In a tight labor market that isn’t loosening anytime soon, those unprepared to deliver on what these young folks seek may soon find themselves facing metaphorical pitchforks at the corporate gates.