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Forty years ago, about one in five employed Americans belonged to a union. That number declined by about half—to 10.3 percent—by 2021, per Bureau of Labor Statistics data, representing a historic low. According to Bloomberg News, union members make up just 6.1 percent of the private workforce, whereas union membership stands at 33.9 percent in the public sector.

Bucking that trend (kind of) is Amazon. On April 1, 2022, a majority of workers at a Staten Island warehouse voted to unionize, seeking to improve what they describe as unsafe working conditions. The effort followed years of grassroots activism and faced difficult odds, because Amazon has aggressively—and, until now, successfully—stifled attempts to unionize.

It’s still trying to kill the Staten Island unionizing effort too. Shortly after 55 percent of the Staten Island warehouse workers voted in favor of unionizing, Amazon filed a challenge, alleging that organizers and the Amazon Labor Union “improperly suppressed and influenced the vote” and asking the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to order a new vote. The NLRB said in early May that Amazon’s objections “could be grounds for overturning the election.” While in the midst of these stifling actions, Amazon also sacked about half a dozen of the senior managers involved with the unionizing efforts—though it claims the firings were for performance reasons, not because of their ties to the union.

Then just a few weeks later, another barrier to more unionization arose: On May 2, 2022, workers at a second Amazon warehouse in Staten Island voted overwhelmingly not to unionize.

Beyond the preferences of the workers themselves, a Pew Research study from February 2022 indicates that a majority of Americans think the decline in union membership is bad for workers, and for the country. In line with these beliefs, workers at more than 50 Starbucks stores have now voted to unionize. Workers at one REI store, in New York, recently voted to unionize, too.

Employees at an Apple store in Atlanta filed a petition to unionize in April; it would be the first Apple store to unionize, if they are successful. Two other Apple stores, in New York and Maryland, quickly followed suit, with their own efforts toward unionization.

These workers and their efforts have support from the top, even if not the top of the companies for which they work. Christian Smalls, who led the successful Staten Island Amazon unionization vote, met President Joe Biden at the White House in May 2022, along with other labor leaders. “I like you, you’re my kind of trouble,” President Biden told him. “Amazon, here we come.”

Discussion Questions

  1. Are retail workers employed by other companies likely to continue trying to unionize? Why or why not?
  2. Why do companies try to prevent workers from unionizing?
  3. Is low union membership bad for workers? Bad for the country? Neither?

Source: Noam Scheiber and Coral Murphy Marcos, “Union Vote Begins at Another Amazon Facility on Staten Island,” The New York Times, April 25, 2022; Noam Scheiber and Kellen Browning, “Apple Store Workers in Atlanta Are the First to Formally Seek a Union,” The New York Times, April 20, 2022; Jodi Kantor and Karen Weise, “Amazon vs. The Union,” The New York Times, April 15, 2022; “U.S. Union Membership Falls, Despite Activism,” Washington Post, January 20, 2022; Natalie Sherman, “Amazon Workers Win Battle to Form First U.S. Union,” BBC News, April 2, 2022; Rachel Lerman, Greg Jaffe, and Anna Betts, “Amazon Workers Vote Against Unionization in New York,” Washington Post, May 2, 2022; Lisa Fickenscher, “Amazon Union Vote in NYC Could Be Overturned: NLRB,” New York Post, May 2, 2022; Karen Weise and Noam Scheiber, “Amazon Abruptly Fires Senior Managers Tied to Unionized Warehouse,” The New York Times, May 6, 2022; Ted Van Green, “Majorities of Adults See Decline of Union Membership as Bad for the U.S. and Working People,” Pew Research Center, February 18, 2022; Dave Jamieson, “Starbucks Workers Have Unionized More than 50 Stores in the U.S.,” HuffPost, May 3, 2022; Ayana Archie, “Employees at Another Apple Store Are Unionizing, This Time in Maryland,” NPR.org, May 4, 2022; Juliana Kaplan, “President Biden Says Amazon Union Organizer Christian Smalls Is His ‘Kind of Trouble’ and ‘Let’s Not Stop,'” Insider, May 11, 2022