Labor unions are hot, but their moment may not last | Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON — American labor leaders see this as a moment for radical change: Workers at Starbucks coffee shops and Amazon warehouses are rising up and demanding representation. Polls show millions more support unions or wish they had the chance to join them. President Biden, with majorities in both chambers of Congress, wants to lead the most pro-union administration since Franklin D. Roosevelt.
“There’s a great reckoning and workers have had it,” said Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, one of the largest and most influential unions.
Yet even as experts acknowledge the newfound excitement around labor, they caution that unions, which have suffered decades of declining membership, are unlikely to turn the tide. Unions’ moment of opportunity could already be slipping away. Republicans are poised to gain seats in the November elections. And a potential recession could wipe away the rare leverage workers have held in the tight labor market that emerged in the wake of the pandemic.
But “there are clouds on the horizon,” he added.
Unions have long complained about the structural advantages held by employers fighting off organizing efforts. Employers can hold mandatory meetings where supervisors lobby against unions. And although firing workers for trying to organize is technically illegal, the penalties employers face for doing so are often small — and invariably come months or years after an organizer’s dismissal.
Employers can also drag out the union recognition process and the contract negotiation that comes after it, as they wait for employees to leave their jobs or for economic conditions to change. Employers’ power will only grow if the labor market, now one of the tightest in recent years, loosens, and workers begin fearing a recession.
“When they’re holding those captive audience meetings, they can say basically, ‘Well, the economy is about to get bad, so it’s going to be harder for you to find a job,’” said Jon Shelton, a labor historian at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.
About 1 in 10 American workers is in a labor union, down from a peak of more than 1 in 3 in the mid-1950s. Government workers are five times more likely than private-sector employees to be in a union.