Best of Times, Worst of Times for Unions

Starbucks Unions

             Marble Falls      Unions are in the center of the storm these days.  Any reflection on 2023 had to include the progress of unions in the highlights for the year, and the attention continues to be focused on what it all might mean now and for the future.  In some ways, these seem like the best and worst times for unions.

On the high side, there has been a parade of big wins on legacy union contracts, led by the UAW’s strike in the auto industry, matching or besting inflation, and more.  There continues to be attention and high public approval for unions and surprising success at organizing new kinds of work and workers from baristas to gamers, nurses to white collar workers.  On the low side, some of the organizing success in Starbucks and Amazon, which were front page news, have been mired in legal delays stalling any efforts at achieving collective agreements.  Worst for all the much touted organizing progress, the membership numbers and union density in the workforce continues to fall and is now down to a historic low of 10% or 14.4 million members with only 6% in the private sector and over 30% who are public workers.

The Starbucks up the street from our New Orleans headquarters has filed for an election with huge worker support.  Our old friend and comrade, Jessica Akers Hughes, now head of the Arkansas AFL-CIO, in a recent report painted a game face on the situation there and in the coming year, even seeing hope in “teach­-ins” and the potential in the Walmart dominated northwestern part of the state.  The UAW claims now that it has 30% at Mercedes-Benz plant in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, an on-again, off-again organizing target in the auto industry for years.

Sounds good for a minute, but in the same report quoting Hughes, industry and management spokespeople are unbudging and advising their colleagues to “be kind and treat your people well” whatever that means while he trumpets success in decertifying unions.  Not that the advice from some union leaders to do more “education” isn’t of the same ilk almost, like a train of words that sound good, but have no meaning.

Then there’s the cloud that gathers over our best hopes for unions when we read the Wall Street Journal or Times’ reports of the internal and external problems of the Amazon Labor Union that had been a beacon for so many when they won an upset victory in the Staten Island Amazon warehouse.  Not collecting any dues and rift with internal conflict, somewhat exacerbated by the companies foot­ dragging, their coffers are running dry as early donations fall off in the slough that has set in after the early exhilaration.

The same fog obscures the view in any crystal ball when it comes to the conflict between workers aspirations and the recalcitrance of employers.  This is a struggle.  Unions pull forward and companies pushback.  It’s hard not to conclude that now the peaks are high, but the valleys are longer.  We’re in the fight, but the outcome remains uncertain.  Under any circumstances, we’re a long way from being able to declare victory.