Large firms often oppose unions due to their impact on the company’s autonomy and fears of economic losses as workers fight for higher wages and better benefits.
Amazon warehouse workers in New York’s Staten Island made history this month after they voted and succeeded in creating the first labour union at the e-commerce giant.
Unions across the United States and abroad celebrated the victory against the multi-billion dollar corporation, which has long opposed a collective bargaining agent on its premises.
“It's a great day when workers come together to win dignity and respect on the job,” the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) told TRT World.
The AFL-CIO is the largest federation of unions in the US - it’s made up of 56 national and international unions that represent more than 12 million active and retired workers.
“In the face of one of the richest, most anti-union corporations, the Amazon Labour Union’s victory proves when working people unite in the fight for justice, anything is possible,” AFL-CIO added.
The victory for Amazon workers in New York came just a month after a similar attempt at another warehouse in Alabama faltered.
This was the Alabama warehouse’s second attempt to unionise after the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) found that Amazon interfered in their first election last spring.
Now many are questioning the legitimacy of the result of the second election as hundreds of ballots remain challenged by Amazon and the RWDSU, an arm of the AFL-CIO that represents retail and wholesale workers.
“Amazon workers have a legal right to a truly free and fair union election,” AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler said in a statement emailed to TRT World.
“They are asking for what should be the standard for every American worker: safe working conditions, fair wages, and dignity and respect on the job.”
She called for every single contested ballot to be counted in the close election, adding the organisation “will not allow Amazon to bully workers out of exercising their basic freedom.”
A union of hard labour
A union is an organised group that aims to protect and further the rights and interests of workers through collective bargaining for better wages, hours and working conditions.
Trade unions are formed for a specific trade or occupation, while industrial unions are for a particular industry. Trade unions are created through an employee vote, sanctioned by the NLRB, or if a company recognises the union.
Union membership among public-sector workers (33.9 percent) is five times higher than the rate of private-sector workers (6.1 percent), according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
This contrast shows how millions of US employees at private sector companies, especially tech firms, are vulnerable to exploitation.
In 2021, 7 million employees in the public sector belonged to unions. Workers in education, training, library occupations and protective service occupations were most likely to be part of organised labour.
Among many benefits for workers, unions can help workers file complaints against their employers and even subsidise legal fees in cases of discrimination and wrongful termination. Unions also make politicians aware about the issues workers face.
To form or join a union is a federal right in the US under a law known as the Wagner Act passed in 1935. It protects worker rights to join together and collectively bargain, while also making it illegal for employers to retaliate against those who try to organise.
Yet, just this week a Starbucks employee was fired for allegedly attempting to form a union, reports VICE news, adding to a long list of labour violations the coffee-chain has been accused of.
So why is it that big companies like Amazon and Starbucks are fighting tooth and nail against these unions?
Impact of unions
Companies have a "total allergy to unionisation," a former member of the National Labor Relations Board, Wilma Liebman, told Insider.
She said they “don't want an outside organisation interfering with their autonomy or their ability to act unilaterally.” They are also fearful that unions will "cost them more than they can afford.”
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, union workers earned 17 percent more in average weekly earnings than non-union workers did in 2021.
These higher wages for unionised workers add to the cost of employers when they undertake large projects.
But a higher-paid unionised workforce can also be helpful for businesses as Bloomberg reports: In 2021, the unionised United Parcel Service had much lower employee turnover than non-union rival FedEx Corp amid a labour shortage.
Unions also require members to pay fees to stay in the organisation such as a percentage of their monthly income. While corporations will highlight this fact to discourage workers from joining, most unions have relatively low fees.
For example, membership fees for The United Auto Workers Union begin at around 0.8 percent of an employee's monthly wage, which is basically equal to the cost of a few cups of coffee.
Workers vs management
Critics say labour unions make it harder to promote and terminate workers, as they place a lot of influence on seniority which can hinder career growth of younger employees.
Due to seniority, some employees may not get certain promotions or be hired to work on a project because they have not been with the company or union for a specific period of time.
Critics argue that this closed culture and strong sense of solidarity at many unions may also lead members to protect each other from scrutiny or cover up misconduct, while also making it harder for others, such as women and people of colour, to progress professionally.
However, many unions have diversified their memberships.
In 2021, union representation was fairly evenly divided among genders and races, with Black workers the most likely to join a union, according to US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Another critique raised against unions by companies is that they can create hostilities between workers and management.
The US Chamber of Commerce says it aims to "fight back against the one-sided, anti-employer agenda of special interest organisations."
But union organisers say they can’t be seen as a threat as they are made up of the company’s own employees who share goals for the success of the business.
So how prolific are unions today?
Seeing a comeback
The National Labour Union, founded in 1866, was the first national labour federation in the United States. It paved the way for AFL-CIO, today’s largest federation of unions in the US.
The rise of the unions in the US helped set working standards, rules and minimum wages, which have benefited workers around the world.
But fewer labour unions are being registered and their influence is on the decline.
In the mid 1950s the proportion of union workers was about 35 percent. This dropped to 20 percent in 1983 and it was around 10 percent in 2021, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
This decline is concerning to a majority of American adults, according to a Pew Research Center survey in 2022 which found that 58 percent thought the decline of the unions “has been somewhat or very bad for the country.”
But are there still hopes for a comeback in 2022? Unionisation drives have succeeded in not only Amazon warehouses but also elsewhere such as at The New York Times and Uber.
“Victory in the labour movement is when workers come together to make change despite all obstacles. This is only the beginning,” AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler said in a statement to TRT World.