According to reporting by NPR in December 2022 and The Conversation in January 2023, unions won more than 70 percent of their certification elections in 2022. In fiscal year 2022, 2,510 petitions for union representation were filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) between October 1, 2021, and September 30, 2022. This figure is up 53 percent from FY 2021 when 1,638 petitions were filed. In FY 2022, 1,249 certification elections were held, with workers voting to certify a union as their collective bargaining agent 72 percent of the time.
As Marick Masters explained in his January 2023 article for The Conversation, one business that saw large-scale union activity was Starbucks, with workers holding union elections at 354 stores nationwide, more than a quarter of all US union elections held in 2022. Workers at Starbucks prevailed in four out of every five elections. Workers at Chipotle, Trader Joe’s, and Apple unionized for the first time, while workers at Microsoft and Wells Fargo also had wins.
Union activity, Masters reported, most often spikes in times of societal upheaval. From 1934 to 1939, during the Great Depression, the percentage of American workers in a union rose from 7.6 percent to 19.2 percent, and during World War II between 1941 and 1945, from 20 percent to 27 percent. Masters described the current wave of union activity as driven by record levels of economic inequality and continued mobilization of workers in “essential industries,” such as healthcare, food, and public safety, who were thrust into harm’s way during the global pandemic.
Labor activity—including organizing efforts and strikes—surged in 2022, compared to preceding years. The NLRB tracked twenty large work stoppages that involved more than a thousand workers in 2022, four more than documented in 2021, and 25 percent more than the average number of large work stoppages during the past sixteen years. Since 2021, Cornell University has tracked all labor actions, counting, according to Masters, 385 strikes in 2022, up from 270 in 2021. Moreover, the general public is growing more favorable towards unions. Seventy-one percent of Americans now support unions according to Gallup—a level of support not seen since 1965.
Significantly, the vast majority of recent labor activity is being driven by workers of color. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) recorded a substantial rise of two hundred thousand unionized workers in the United States from 2021 to 2022, most of whom are workers of color, Prem Thakker reported for the New Republic. According to BLS, unionized workers of color increased by 231,000 last year, while White unionized workers decreased by thirty-one thousand. Recent data shows that the largest increase in union membership in 2022 occurred in state and local government positions in the South. Low-wage workers of color in the public sector have been driving the overall gains.
Thakker noted that, according to BLS data, “industries that saw the largest increases in unionization were state government; durable goods manufacturing; arts, entertainment, and recreation; and transportation and warehousing.” States with the largest increases in unionization included California, Texas, Ohio, Maryland, and Alabama. Whereas Republican and Democratic politicians often separate concerns over working conditions and pay from issues of identity, these data demonstrate how identity and workers’ rights are closely connected. “After all, unionization and labor struggles are direct mechanisms to better accomplish racial and social equality; the ability for people to afford to live happy and dignified lives is inherently tied to their ability to enjoy fundamental social and civil rights within those lives, too,” Thakker wrote.
Despite recent inroads at employers like Starbucks and growing popular support for unions, the power of organized labor is nowhere close to what it once was. As Masters pointed out, more than a third of workers were unionized in the 1950s, whereas only a tenth were in 2021. Before the 1980s, there were typically more than five thousand union elections in any given year, and as recently as 1980, there were two hundred major work stoppages.
Corporate media coverage of the labor resurgence of 2022 was highly selective and, in some ways, misleading. The establishment press has published hundreds of articles on union organizing at corporations such as Starbucks and Amazon and among graduate students at universities across the country. Yahoo republished Masters’s The Conversation article about union success in elections, and Vox, Bloomberg Law, and the Washington Post all remarked on organized labor’s recent string of certification vote victories. Yet corporate coverage of current labor organizing often fails to address the outsized role played by workers of color in union growth, the sectors and geographic areas where unions are adding members, and the shrinking number of White workers represented by collective bargaining agents.
Moreover, corporate coverage of recent union successes has rarely placed them in a proper historical context. One exception was a January 2022 article in the New York Times which reported that, despite the growing popularity of unions, high-profile organizing campaigns at Starbucks and Amazon, and the significant involvement of women in union activities, there has been a pronounced downward trend in union membership during the past forty years. The article even quoted a labor studies professor, Ruth Milkman, who attributed the decline in union membership to private employers’ heavy-handed efforts to undermine organizing campaigns and labor laws that strongly favor employers.
Mike Elk, “Workers of Color Accounted for 100% of Union Growth in 2022,” Payday Report, March 28, 2023.
Marick Masters, “Worker Strikes and Union Elections Surged in 2022–Could It Mark a Turning Point for Organized Labor?” The Conversation, January 5, 2023.
Prem Thakker, “Workers of Color Made Up 100% of Union Growth in 2022,” New Republic, March 24, 2023.
Andrea Hsu and Alina Selyukh, “Union Wins Made Big News This Year. Here Are 5 Reasons Why It’s Not the Full Story,” NPR, December 27, 2022.
Student Researchers: Annie Koruga (Ohlone College) and Cem İsmail Addemir (Illinois State University)
Faculty Evaluators: Robin Takahashi (Ohlone College) and Steve Macek (North Central College)