I’m old enough to remember having a labor reporter on my staff when I was a business editor. This wasn’t at a huge metro paper but rather a sign of how important coverage of organized labor was in many places even in the mid-1980s.
Back then about 14% of private-sector jobs were represented by unions. By 2020, that number was down to 6.3%, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. (Public employees were more than five times more likely to be represented by unions.)
At its 1953 peak, 35.7% of American workers were unionized and the gains pioneered by organized labor spread through most sectors.
The decline is an oft-told tale (including in annual Labor Day columns by me). The 1947 Taft-Hartley Act reduced union power. Service and tech industries were harder to organize while highly unionized sectors such as railroads and auto manufacturing shed jobs. State “right to work” laws cut membership. Some unions were corrupt. Business power increased, tilting the field against labor.
And then came Ronald Reagan, the only U.S. president who previously served as a member and president of an AFL-CIO union, busting the air traffic controllers’ strike in 1981. The walkout probably was illegal, but Reagan signaled to private industry that the federal government would look benignly on replacement workers, eviscerating bargaining power.
For this Labor Day, let’s consider Seattle and Washington as a pivot for labor’s present and future.
A total of 18.6% of Washington workers were represented by unions this past year, among the highest rates in the country. (Elsewhere in the Northwest, it was 19.5% in Alaska, 17.3% in Oregon, and 6.4% in Idaho).
Unions here are powerful in local politics. For example, mayoral candidate M. Lorena González lists endorsements from nine locals and the Martin Luther King Jr. County Labor Council on her website. Opponent Bruce Harrell lists seven. In other words, candidates for citywide — and many district — offices aren’t going far without the support of organized labor.
The International Association of Machinists Local 751 and the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace Local 2001, which represent Boeing and other aerospace workers, swing a big bat in Washington.
Some of Seattle’s more successful progressive initiatives, such as the $15-an-hour minimum wage, came with heavy union support.
Here, unions are relevant and have some of their former power.
Paradoxically, two major companies based here are at the heart of the roadblocks unions face and perhaps their opportunities.
More than 8,000 company-owned Starbucks locations are not unionized. However, Starbucks workers in Buffalo, New York, have formed a union called Starbucks Workers United and petitioned the National Labor Relations Board to hold an election.
Among the complaints are a chaotic work environment, erratic work hours and difficulty taking sick days, according to The New York Times.
“They could fix this or that issue, but there are always new things coming up,” said Brian Murray, a Starbucks barista in Buffalo. “The only way to have those resolved in the future is having a union, having democracy in the workplace.”
Starbucks responded with a statement saying, “We respect our partners’ right to organize but believe that they would not find it necessary given our pro-partner environment.”
Amazon, criticized for the work conditions in its warehouses (“fulfillment centers”), seemed to dodge a union vote in Bessemer, Alabama.
But the union says Amazon pressured workers and seeks a new vote. Amazon denies the charge.
“This organizing inspired a nation,” Faye Guenther, the president of UFCW 21, the union representing Seattle-area grocery and warehouse workers, told my colleague Katherine Anne Long. To Guenther, Amazon’s victory shows “what workers face when they try to organize. They face an impossible gantlet of anti-union tactics. And this exposed that.”
This is a common impediment that organized labor has faced in recent decades. But a successful vote in Buffalo or a successful revote in Alabama might open a floodgate for organizing.
Another problem unions face is gig work, including ride-hailing companies, done by contract employees outside the traditional workforce. Gigs are widespread in tech, too. Seattle is among the top cities for gigs.
In deep-blue California, Uber, Lyft and the delivery service DoorDash pushed through an initiative this past November to allow gig companies to keep treating workers as independent contractors. It was the most expensive proposition in the state’s history.
For the companies, it provided a playbook to take national. Critics said the companies had bought a law to continue the anti-union status quo. This past month, however, a judge struck the initiative down as unconstitutional. In July, drivers struck for a day demanding better pay and work conditions. Pro-labor activists see this opening the door to large-scale unionization.
In addition, a Gallup poll shows 65% of respondents with favorable views toward unions.
Wind at their back? Not quite, even with Joe Biden casting himself as the most pro-union president since Harry Truman.
“It’s really basic,” Vice President Kamala Harris told the Los Angeles Times. “Almost mathematically, if you are requiring the one employee to bargain against a corporation, the outcome will not be fair, because there’s such an imbalance of power.”
But the AFL-CIO’s top priority for legislation to rewrite labor law, making unionization easier, is stuck in the Senate.
Still, it’s no coincidence that the growth of worker earnings diverged sharply from that of top executives as unions weakened. Pensions and job security went away and other benefits were scaled back, as companies used profits for stock buybacks. The American middle class itself hollowed out.
It will take time for the pendulum to swing back to more fairness. Seattle will be a good place to watch what happens.