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Donald Morrison: After losing ground for decades, unions regaining a foothold in American workforce

Amazon Union Victory

Staten Island-based Amazon.com distribution center employees celebrate earlier this month after winning the right to unionize. It was the first successful U.S. organizing effort in the retail giant's history.

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night. Alive as you and me.

You may have heard those opening words of “Joe Hill,” the old labor anthem made famous by Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger. Joan Baez sang it at Woodstock in 1969. Bruce Springsteen opened a 2014 concert with it on May 1, International Worker’s Day. You can find all four versions on YouTube.

Joe Hill was a real-life, early 20th century labor organizer. He was killed in 1915 over his role, legend has it, in a Utah copper mine strike.

I dreamt about Joe — daydreamed, actually — when I heard that workers at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, N.Y., are voting this week to form a labor union, only months after a company warehouse nearby did the same. Meanwhile, unions are popping up at Apple and Verizon stores, media companies, tech firms, graduate schools and other heretofore nonunion enclaves.

The National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency that enforces labor laws, says petitions to hold union elections are up 57 percent since last October. Activity is particularly fierce at Starbucks. So far this year, 30 of the coffee company’s 6,600 U.S. locations have voted to unionize, up from zero.

After decades of losses, the American labor movement seems to be making a comeback. A booming job market, onerous working conditions and energetic organizing efforts have convinced some people that there really is strength in numbers.

On average, unionized workers earn about 20 percent more than their nonunion counterparts and often enjoy better work rules and job protections. Multiple studies indicate that unionization is one of the most effective tools for reducing income inequality, which has worsened in the U.S. in recent years.

Still, only about 11 percent of American workers belong to unions, barely half the level in 1983. Globalization and technological change have reduced employment in U.S. manufacturing, a longtime union stronghold. In addition, 25 mostly Republican-run states have adopted so-called “right to work” laws that discourage organizing.

A lesser-known reason for the decline of unions is that companies have gotten impressively good at defusing the union threat. Oh, they don’t kill organizers like Joe Hill anymore. In a few cases, they even respond to signs of employee activism by improving wages and worksite conditions, which is good.

Not so good: Other companies routinely fire and demote workers who try to organize. That’s technically illegal but hard to police. The NLRB last week sued Starbucks for mistreating three employees who tried to organize an outlet in Phoenix. But the agency is stretched thin, and 150 members of Congress, including four Republicans, called last week for a sizeable budget increase.

A vast industry of consultants has sprung up to help companies resist unionization, legally. Typical techniques include threatening to relocate or close a workplace if a vote succeeds, showering workers with union-skeptical reading material and requiring attendance at anti-union information sessions.

For workers, winning a vote to form a union is only the first step in a steep and lengthy slog. Some employers drag out the negotiating process. Others simply refuse to talk. A 2009 Economic Policy Institute study found that fewer than half of new collective bargaining units have a contract after a year, only 70 percent after three years.

Still, a 2020 Gallup Poll showed two-thirds of Americans support the right to organize, the most in two decades. Roughly 60 million workers say they would join a union if they had a chance, including three-quarters of 18- to 24-year-olds.

That was me, years ago. As a young writer, I joined fellow members of the Newspaper Guild (now the News Guild) in a three-week strike against Time Magazine. We won a 17 percent raise over two years but lost on some work-rule issues. Still, the experience was well worth the trouble, especially for the sense of purpose and solidarity.

Which, come to think of it, is why people are joining unions, as well as clubs, teams, rock bands and nations — not just for personal enrichment, but for the thrill of being part of something bigger, something better than our own flawed and lonely march through life.

That’s why I still get the shivers when I hear the “Joe Hill” song. Or read about his fellow organizer Frank Little, who was killed two years after Joe, probably by company thugs, during a copper strike in Butte, Mont.

Last week, perhaps fittingly, workers at a Starbucks in Butte filed a request to form a union. As the song goes: “From San Diego up to Maine. In every mine and mill. Where workers strike and organize. It’s there you’ll find Joe Hill.”

You may find him serving your next latte.

Donald Morrison is an Eagle columnist and co-chairman of the advisory board. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of

The Berkshire Eagle.

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