Workers on Picket Lines Are Navigating a New Labor Landscape

By Harrison Tremarello
An image from RetroReport

The National Labor Relations Board on Monday ordered a re-vote in a union election by Amazon workers in Alabama, finding that company management had interfered in the process. Voting ends next week in Buffalo for what could be the first union at Starbucks. Kellogg's has agreed to resume negotiationswith union workers as strikes at four cereal plants move into an eighth week.

The labor strike wave of October (which came to be known as “Striketober”) has passed, but American workers are making gains as they demand higher wages, expanded benefits and safer working conditions while employers scramble to hire in a tight labor market. This new environment has challenged union organizers, Cornell labor historian Ileen DeVault explains in a new Retro Report video, above.

It’s the latest surge in worker protests after a decades-long decline in labor activity, a trend we explored in a past newsletter. Frontline workers today are in a position not unlike that of manufacturing workers immediately following World War II: praised for their efforts during a crisis, but facing resistance to collective bargaining by corporations that are profiting as inflation rises.

In 1945 and 1946, corporations like General Motors and U.S. Steel returned to the bargaining table after over four million workers, most of them unionized, went on strike. But today’s labor actions take place in a different economic landscape, where service industry jobs outnumber manufacturingas the country’s lead source of employment.

Retail, food service and warehouse workers don’t expect long-term employment. For example, Amazon had a pre-pandemic turnover rate of over 150 percent a year. These employers are also the least likely to offer pensions. Unions that drove the postwar strike wave have much lower membership rolls today, and haven’t succeeded in organizing the service sectors where workers are now protesting. Today, union membership stands at below 11 percent for all U.S. workers. Only 1.2 percent of food service workers are union members.

While small groups of unionized workers in traditional manufacturing jobs, like those at John Deere, have won demands in new contracts, the outcome for non-unionized service workers at Amazon and Starbucks is less certain.

HARRISON TREMARELLO, an intern at Retro Report, produced and edited the video accompanying this article. He is a video and multimedia reporting student in the journalism and political science programs at Northwestern. This article first appeared in Retro Report’s free weekly newsletter. Subscribe and receive lessons from history in your mailbox. Follow us on Twitter @RetroReport.