Labor Union Activism Is on the Rise, Recalling the Great Depression
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This week, Starbucks workers around the United States took part in in a strike as part of their push to unionize. They’re among new groups of American workers pushing to form labor unions at restaurants, stores and warehouses as the economic pain of the pandemic sets in.
In 2021 and ‘22, filings for new unions in the U.S. rose by 53 percent. Experts told us that this recent wave is the biggest surge of union activism in decades. “The only other time in American history when we saw such clamor to unionize was in the 1930s during the Great Depression,” said Steven Greenhouse, a former labor reporter at The New York Times.
At the height of the Depression, with as many as 13 million Americans out of work, President Franklin Roosevelt pushed New Deal reforms through Congress, including the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, which guaranteed private sector workers the right to form unions. After a landmark strike at General Motors in 1936, union membership soared. Within two years, nearly two million Americans staged strikes over working conditions at textile and steel factories.
Today, pro-union activism is increasing among workers at restaurants, retail stores and warehouses. We spoke to Brandi Alduk, who has worked at a Starbucks store in Queens, N.Y., for three years. As the pandemic restrictions lifted, she and other workers at her store decided to file for a union election in an effort to improve working conditions.
“As we started opening back up, there were a lot of altercations with customers about wearing masks,” Alduk told Retro Report. “I’ve had people destroy bathrooms. I’ve had people shoot up in the bathroom. So it is usually the people who are getting paid the least amount of money handling those types of situations.
“Unions have historically had less success organizing workers in the healthcare, tech and service industries that now dominate the U.S. economy. Today, as in the 1930s, companies are pushing back against efforts to form unions.
“The customer experience will be significantly challenged and less than, if a third party is integrated into our business,” Harold Schultz, the former chairman and CEO of Starbucks, said in an interview.
Overcoming these obstacles is challenging but not impossible, said Samir Sonti, an assistant professor of urban studies at the City University of New York. “Something historically is happening by workers shifting the center of gravity, the way that workers in the 1930s shifted the center of gravity,” he told us.