This story was originally published at Prism.
Workers across the country are successfully unionizing for better wages and sustainable working conditions after COVID-19 upended the workforce. Two years into the pandemic, the workforce and the workplace have undeniably changed, and after workers across industries lost or left their jobs, many began to reconsider their needs in the workplace.
The reevaluation of workplace standards in 2021 gave rise to what has been called the Great Resignation: workers resigning in the search of better working conditions, benefits, more respect, and better pay. As a result, the labor market tightened, a labor shortage grew, and workers who remained in their jobs or found new jobs recognized their bargaining power. Many workers have organized and contributed to a historic moment in labor history. The unionizing wave reached a peak in the fourth quarter of 2021 with the most picket lines in over a decade. Bloomberg Law named it “Strikeober,” with 58 nonmanufacturing, government, and manufacturing work stoppages in just the last quarter of 2021. While it may seem that unions are on the rise, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 15.8 million workers were represented by a union in 2021, a decline of 581,000 since 2019, and 137,000 since 2020. The decline is due to massive job loss in hospitality and leisure industries during the pandemic. According to the Economic Policy Institute, jobs in less unionized industries, such as hospitality and leisure, were lost at a higher rate, leaving behind unionized workers, causing unionization rates to go up. Now, workers from coffee shops to insurance are making sure their voices are heard.
The modern-day labor movement reached new heights on April 1, when Amazon workers won one of the most significant labor victories: the first successful unionization effort at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, New York. With 1.1 million workers in the U.S., Amazon is the country’s second-largest private employer and is notorious for its inhumane work conditions. The union win is due in part to the efforts of Christian Smalls, who was fired by Amazon in 2020 for “violating quarantine protocol” while organizing and spent two years organizing the workers at his warehouse and fighting against union busting efforts, which included secret surveillance, police harassment, and disinformation. Despite aggressive union-busting efforts by Amazon, the warehouse voted in favor of the union, with 2,654 workers voting yes and 2,131 workers voting no. Now, staff at more than 50 different Amazon warehouses are contacting Smalls to set up their own organizing efforts.
“We’re very proud of our independence and worker leadership, and we’re committed to this direct democratic model of organizing as a strategy that we’re encouraging and training other workers to employ,” Amazon Labor Union wrote in a statement. “This is just the beginning, and there is so much more work to be done, but never again can anyone plausibly suggest that there is a workplace that cannot be unionized, or that workers cannot win it for ourselves without the resources and experience of formal affiliation with an established union. We are the proof.”
Workers across other industries have also organized while facing union-busting efforts by their employer. Helene Tracey has worked as a barista at a Coffee Tree in Pennsylvania since May 2021. As soon as she heard that her colleagues were forming a union in August, she joined their efforts. She said she and her coworkers felt voiceless on the job—they were working eight hours straight without any breaks, and when they expressed concerns about pay discrepancies, management did not do anything to address it. According to Tracey, she was first hired making $8.50 an hour, while her colleagues made $9 an hour.
“That really motivated me to seek another opportunity to feel seen on the job,” Tracey said.
In February 2022, The Coffee Tree Union voted in favor of the union. They spent six months organizing and dodging union-busting firms and demoralizing meetings. At one point, Tracey said her hours were cut by her employer in retaliation. She filed an unfair labor practice complaint to the National Labor Relations Board and is waiting for the results of the investigation.
“It’s difficult being at odds with a company, especially when I worked with managers almost every shift,” Tracey said. “It definitely transformed the work environment after we went public. It was more uncomfortable.”
While the union-busting was challenging, Tracey said it is necessary to have their voices heard on the job, and it eventually creates a more cooperative work environment. Tracey now makes $12 an hour.
“It’s important to understand that the community is always going to be behind you,” Tracey said.
David Gutsche, who has worked at Half Price Books in Roseville, Minnesota, for almost 10 years, started organizing his bookstore location in May 2021, a year after the pandemic started. Gutsche said workers were overwhelmed by inadequate staffing levels and an outsized amount of work. Around the same time, Minnesota had dropped their mask mandate. The employers at Half Price Books decided that no one in the store had to wear masks anymore either, but workers asked for time to allow for employees to at least get vaccinated. When the employers said that would not be possible, Gutsche said that was the last straw. They signed a petition saying they no longer felt safe and presented it to the company.
“They’re not going to listen to us if we’re just polite and ask them nicely,” Gutsche said. “We realized that the proper channels were set up to serve the company and not the workers, and we decided to make different channels.”
Gutsche’s store voted in favor of the union in November 2021, despite union-busting efforts from outside consultants Ogletree Deakin. His advice to other workers who may be hoping to unionize is to listen to each other and continue to communicate throughout the entire process.
Mike, who works at a Half Price Books in Indiana that just voted in favor of the union on April 1, agreed and said the community fostered by the union has been incredibly valuable.
“There is no better time than the present,” Mike said. “I learned that I can have an impact in my own life rather than have people run my life for me.”
In 2020, California AAA insurance workers started unionizing the Central Valley AAA offices. During the pandemic, Angie Matthews, who has been a AAA insurance salesperson for 13 years in Stockton, California, said the agents had an awakening. Instead of releasing pressure like other insurance companies did on their sales staff, AAA increased the sales goals and quotas and unveiled aggressive plans to “migrate” the insurance salespeople out in favor of the remote call center.
“They wanted to obliterate our team,” Matthews said. “They wanted to get rid of as many as they could so they could profit more. But that’s not what the customers want. Customers want to come in and be advised by an educated insurance adviser.”
More than 460 AAA salespeople in Northern California voted in favor of the union in June 2021 despite union-busting tactics like one-on-one interrogations. Matthews says workers need to “stay vigilant.”
“They are going to use every tactic possible to crush your spirits and the spirits of others, but there always needs to be one person that’s willing to stand out and be brave for the group, to stand out against the oppressors, and people will follow,” Matthews said. “We are in a battle against corporations. We are all labor against these big conglomerates that are trying to rule our country in our roles. If we don’t stand together for the greater fight and respect everyone’s positions, and everyone’s right to organize, and be free from these oppressive workplaces, then we’re not going to overcome it.”
Prism is a BIPOC-led nonprofit news outlet that centers the people, places, and issues currently underreported by national media. We’re committed to producing the kind of journalism that treats Black, Indigenous, and people of color, women, the LGBTQ+ community, and other invisibilized groups as the experts on our own lived experiences, our resilience, and our fights for justice. Sign up for our email list to get our stories in your inbox, and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.