“Look, I’m a union guy”, US president Joe Biden proclaimed this week.
His vice-president Kamala Harris said the Biden government was determined to be “the most pro-union administration in America’s history”.
It was Labor Day in the United States this week. The country marks the contribution of workers in September as opposed to May Day in Europe. It also signals the end of summer and the onset of autumn.
But the day fell this year at a time when it may be effectively a springtime for the trade union movement.
The rights of workers and the trade union movement in the United States have ebbed and flowed over the years.
A high point was in the 20 years or so after 1930 when one in three workers were members of a union.
However, membership strength and the power of unions dwindled in more recent decades.
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Corruption and racketeering in some unions did not help the cause. In several states politicians introduced measures to restrict trade unions and passed legislation known as “right to work laws” which tackled “closed shops” where union membership was compulsory, and made it optional for workers to pay their subscriptions. Some employers also adopted various initiatives to discourage unionisation in their companies including union-busting strategies proposed by anti-union consultants. Some threatened their workforces with closures if they formed a union, others fired activists or made staff attend propaganda meetings to persuade them to oppose unionisation.
Today about 10 per cent of American workers are union members, with figures for the private sector lower still.
However, there are signals that in the wake of the pandemic, rising inflation and the cost-of-living crisis, the wind may be turning in favour of trade unions once again.
A Gallup poll at the end of August suggested that more Americans now backed the idea of unions than at any time since 1965.
Gallup said 71 per cent approved of labour unions. Although statistically similar to a figure of 68 per cent recorded last year, it was up from 64 per cent before Covid.
Nearly two-thirds of union members in the poll cited securing better pay and benefits as the main reason for joining. On the other hand, 58 per cent of non-union members had no interest at all in joining. About one in 10 workers in non-union employment said they were “extremely interested” but more expressed some support for the idea.
The world of work, like much else, changed following the Covid-19 pandemic. Low unemployment meant companies had to hunt for staff, which altered the balance of power between workers and employers.
In this environment a new drive towards unionisation would appear to be emerging in some sectors.
Under US law workers or employers can make a submission to a federal agency, the National Labor Relations Board, for a workplace election to determine whether there is support to have a union recognised for the purposes of collective bargaining with an employer. During the first nine months of 2022 the number of union recognition petitions filed with the agency increased by 58 per cent.
The drive towards unionisation has affected some of the big corporations. Coffee chain Starbucks runs about 9,000 outlets across the country. Since a ballot in one store in Buffalo last December, about 225 outlets covering over 6,000 workers, have voted to unionise. More petitions are pending.
Amazon warehouse workers in Staten Island in New York generated significant attention in April when they voted to unionise. But they were not alone. Workers in some Apple, Trader Joe and Chipotle outlets have done likewise. There have been suggestions that the newly-legalised cannabis sector may now also be fertile ground for union organisation.
Of course all this is coming against a backdrop of powerful political support. The president has always been a union supporter.
Speaking in Pennsylvania this week he stated: “Wall Street didn’t build the middle class. Wall Street didn’t build United States. The middle class built United States, and unions built the middle class.”
Ms Harris described in an interview with the Nation magazine this week how, when growing up in California, she was inspired by grape boycott campaigns by farm workers to force growers to negotiate.
“This sounds quaint, and so I’m reluctant to say it, but, you know, I didn’t eat a grape until I was in my twenties.”
A White House task force has produced dozens of recommendations on making it easier for workers to organise.
However, there is opposition from conservative groups and some employers. Republicans have proposed updated employment legislation demanding secret ballots ahead of strikes and greater worker consent requirements on how union funds are spent.
Last year the conservative Heritage Foundation argued that unions had outlived their usefulness in the US economy and were no longer needed.
“Biden’s claim that ‘we need to grow good-paying, union jobs at home’ is disconnected from the reality of the US labour market. Better paying jobs can come from technology, higher productivity, and specialisation. More unionisation will only increase production costs, making consumers pay the price. ”