After years of declining membership, unions are redoubling their efforts to sell their product (membership) to “new” economy customers. While unions have long targeted grocery stores like Kroger and SuperValu, they now are moving into the new economy by targeting employers like Amazon and Starbucks.
In 2021, the number of union workers across the country declined by 241,000. The total number of U.S. employees in unions dropped to 14 million, which is a record low of 10.3% of all U.S. workers.1 In response, unions are turning to new businesses and warehouses such as Starbucks, Target, and Amazon to add members. From October 1, 2021, through March 31, 2022, union representation petitions increased 57% over the prior six months. During that period, workers at more than 250 Starbucks locations filed petitions to form unions. While unions were approved in only 54 Starbucks stores, the unions still gained hundreds more dues-paying members. And a union successfully organized an Amazon warehouse for the first time in New York City, forming the Amazon Labor Union. But union efforts go beyond coffee and Amazon. On May 11, 2022, workers at a Target store in Christiansburg, Virginia filed an election petition, continuing the unions’ trend of focusing on commercial workers. Unionization efforts are popping up all over the country. A whopping 68% of Americans approve of labor unions,2 the highest approval rating since the 1960s.
The More Things Change…
While unionization targets may be different, the main reasons for employees organizing a union remain the same: 1) employee perception of communication with management, 2) employee belief that they are being treated unfairly, 3) safety issues, and 4) pay and benefits.
Union avoidance efforts should be tailored to a specific workplace. But some recommendations remain consistent in every workplace:
Open-door policies. Employers that discourage, punish, or ignore dialogue in the workplace are more likely to face concerted efforts from their workers. Employers should not only claim to have open-door policies but also be proactive in openly working through employees’ issues and encourage employees to be part of that dialogue.
Review employee handbooks. Employee handbooks must be carefully written to set forth the employer’s policies but must also not encroach upon employees’ rights including those under the National Labor Relations Act. In addition, handbooks provide an opportunity for employers to set a positive tone with employees. While an “off the shelf” handbook may be legally compliant, employers should make sure their handbooks also convey other important information to employees that are specific to their business. An annual review of the handbook will help ensure it is keeping up with changes in the business and the law.
Safety first. Many recent organizing campaigns started with employees’ concerns with the safety of working conditions. These concerns may be exacerbated by workplaces failing to provide adequate safety precautions throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. All employers should develop and follow detailed safety policies that protect their employees’ well-being.
Pay and benefits. Nearly every unionization effort cites wages or benefits that are perceived to be non-competitive or inadequate.
Employers should always be alert for signs of union organizing. As the unions expand their efforts to other industries, companies that have not historically had unions may become targets for organizing. And the most important union avoidance tool is also good business – companies should work to maintain healthy relationships between employees and management.