Last year, workers across the country organized their workplaces to advocate for stronger pay, benefits, working conditions, and collective bargaining agreements. Early in the year, Amazon workers attempted to unionize their plant in Bessmer, AL. Their drive received national attention, and it even prompted President Joe Biden to announce his support for their efforts. Other high-profile efforts included the recent successful unionization of a Starbucks store in the Buffalo area, which drew attention from national political leaders like Sen. Bernie Sanders and has already inspired over 50 other locations to file for their own elections. Meanwhile, thousands of other workers banded together to strike their respective workplaces, including John Deere, Kellogg’s, and Columbia University. From “#Striketober” to the PRO Act, these direct actions have inspired activists and political leaders to rally behind unions and push for fundamental changes in national labor policy.
It may be inaccurate to call this rise in labor activity a “strike wave;” the size of recent strikes pale in comparison to the post-World War strike waves throughout the 20th century, and the strikes during “Striketober” were smaller than those in October 2019. However, these high-profile strikes and union elections reflect a moment of changing worker attitudes, especially when considered in tandem with other shifts in the labor market. Over 4.3 million workers quit their jobs last August, and while the “Great Resignation” of 2021 was a coalescence of individual actions versus a coordinated, collective effort, it signals the broad discontent that many workers feel. Meanwhile, 68% of Americans support unions, the highest rating recorded by Gallup since 1965. When considered together, these developments highlight a restive workforce ready to reject the status quo.
In the coming year, broader societal currents could ignite even greater labor unrest. The United States is navigating yet another COVID-19 surge due to the Omicron variant, and this time, national policymakers have not extended many of the COVID-19 policies that kept workers safe and financially afloat in 2020. Since the expiration of these provisions, workers have needed to either push their employers to provide the benefits that they need to work safely, rely on local governments to pass these measures, or weigh the benefits of working against the risks of COVID-19. With Omicron spreading across the country and Congressional inaction on basic COVID-19 protections, the stakes will only increase for workers, exacerbating anxieties about work that could fuel workers’ frustrations with their employers and mobilize organizing efforts.
Workplaces will accordingly serve as key venues for the advancement of labor rights and worker protections alongside Congress and other formal policy forums this year. Two Amazon elections have already garnered national attention, as workers in Bessmer will vote again on February 4th and workers in New York will vote on unionization later this year.
Given the potential for other massive campaigns, union leaders should continue to pursue high-profile unionization efforts to galvanize further public support for unions. Attention-grabbing elections and strikes alone will not catalyze a national labor movement, yet they can inspire other workers to contact their local unions and begin to organize their workspaces, which would develop the multi-sector union representation necessary for advancing basic protections for all workers. As union leaders advance these policies through non-governmental means, policymakers in Washington can assist workers by passing the PRO Act and authorizing executive actions that eliminate barriers to organizing and discourage worker intimidation by employers. With sound coordination between organizers, union leaders, and allied policymakers, 2022 could be the year when broad discontents and disparate campaigns coalesce into the active labor movement that the United States has sorely lacked for decades.
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