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Crain’s editorial: State of the unions


It has been a rocky year for the economy, underscored most recently by federal data for June showing that the consumer price index was up 9.1% from a year ago.

Inflation’s burden on consumers and employers is immediate and well-understood, even if answers for now remain elusive. Federal Reserve tightening has yet to slay the inflation beast; Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland president Loretta Mester called the June numbers “uniformly bad,” adding, “There was no good news in that report at all.” Gas prices have started to fall, offering a little relief, but higher costs for virtually everything continue to ripple through and reshape the economy.

Here’s another statistic that’s eye-catching and, though distinct from inflation, tells us something about the tumultuous state of business and employment: During the first six months of the federal government’s fiscal 2022 (Oct. 1, 2021, through March 31 this year), union representation petitions filed at the National Labor Relations Board have increased 57% — to 1,174 from 748 during the like period of fiscal 2021. Unfair labor practice charges, meanwhile, increased 14%, to 8,254 from 7,255.

A lot of that union organizing is taking place at big national companies, most notably Starbucks — workers at the coffee chain’s store on West Sixth Street in downtown Cleveland in May became the second in the state to formally unionize — and Amazon. Growing numbers of companies in many industries, from airlines to retail to tech, are seeing employees pursue unionization. And as the National Law Review noted, the increase comes as the Gallup polling organization found that Americans’ approval of labor unions had risen to 68% in August 2021 from just 48% in 2009. The last year this many Americans viewed unions positively? 1965.

The Starbucks union victories, in particular, bear watching, given the company’s high profile and its strong, vocal push against the organizing efforts. Such wins, experts say, could spur more unionization across the country. “Sometimes strikes and union organizing victories can be very contagious,” Johnnie Kallas, a doctoral candidate at Cornell’s Industrial and Labor Relations school, told Vox in December after a company-owned Starbucks in Buffalo became the first in the U.S. to unionize.

As with so many things, the pandemic appears to be the chief catalyst for higher levels of unionization efforts. It “was the wakeup call … that has prompted two perspectives: ‘is there another way to work and live?’ and the relationship between employers with workers,” former NLRB chairman and current Georgetown Law professor Mark Pearce told CNBC in May. “The vulnerable workers — they were not only scared, they were pissed.”

The political atmosphere has changed, too. President Joe Biden has been staunchly pro-union, and the National Labor Relations Board under this administration likely will make labor law changes that will make it easier for unions to organize workforces. A more populist, less corporate Republican Party, meanwhile, gives some of its members more space to support unions. And workers, when they believe there are a lot of other jobs out there, are more willing to take the risk of forming a union knowing they have options if their employer retaliates. (That might change quickly if high inflation or other factors send the economy into a recession.)

Labor’s recent resurgence, though, comes against the backdrop of long-term declines in the share of U.S. workers who are unionized. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, for instance, reports that in 2021, the number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions declined by 241,000 to about 14 million, and the percentage who were members of unions fell to 10.3% from 10.8% in 2020. (Ohio’s figure is higher, at 13%.) As recently as 1983, the national figure was above 20%.

Seen through that lens, unions may be down, but they certainly aren’t out.

Non-union employers should understand that organizing is a real possibility as workers seek help in amplifying their voices on issues such as wages, hours and working conditions. Smart employers will look at whether their current efforts to communicate with workers are effective — assuming they exist at all. If not, they should work quickly to create more open channels for dialogue.

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