The state of the unions

What's behind the 14-year high in union membership and what does it signal?

Nurses unionized with the Minnesota Nurses Association picket outside Children’s Minnesota Hospital in St. Paul, Minn. Fifteen thousand nurses walked out in a 3-day strike.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Unions are having a moment in Minnesota. From Starbucks workers organizing, to nurses and teachers striking, Minnesota workers across sectors are joining unions and walking out at rates unseen in years.

But what's behind the spike in union membership — the highest in 14 years — and what does it mean for the future of work?

Professor William Jones studies labor history and race at the University of Minnesota and he joined All Things Considered to discuss the surge in union activity.

Hear the full conversation by using the audio player above or reading the transcript below. It has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

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What do you find significant about what we're seeing in recent years?

We've seen people joining unions, we've seen more strikes, we've also seen a significant upturn in public opinion of unions. The most recent opinion polls showed a near all-time high of people saying that unions are good for the economy and good for workers.

What role has the Covid-19 pandemic played?

I think the pandemic had a lot to do with what we're seeing in a number of ways. One thing is the attention to the sacrifices that workers play, particularly workers in the service sectors and in the health care sector workers that were seen as on the frontlines of the pandemic.

There was a lot of attention to the degree to which we are dependent on their labor for the functioning of society. So, there was a sense of [respect for] wages and working conditions and a need to follow that.

There have been recent successful effortsto decertify and vote out unions recently. What forces are at work here?

Decertification elections, historically, are actually declining. The more important historical trend that we're seeing now is that it's actually very hard for workers to actually vote in a union and then reach a union contract.

For example, with the Starbucks workers, roughly 200 Starbucks stores in the past several months voted in favor of being represented by the Union. But in none of them have the Starbucks corporation actually moved into negotiations toward a contract.

So, I think the bigger trend than workers rejecting unions is actually workers selecting unions and voting in favor of unions — but not actually having the legal and political clout to be able to actually reach a contract with those employers.

Could you elaborate on why it's so difficult?

The National Labor Relations Board, which is the federal agency that conducts the elections and oversees the process of moving toward a contract, has very limited ability to penalize employers who do not go along with that process.

So it's very easy for an employer to stall in the process. They can start the process of negotiation but they can put it off for a long time. Particularly in industries where there's a high labor turnover, they can just wait it out.

In many cases, employers will actually fire people. This is technically illegal but it's very difficult to enforce that. It's a legal context in which there are actually very few protections for workers who may take the risk of forming a union.

What are you keeping your eye on as negotiations proceed after these major recent strikes?

I'll be paying attention to whether they can actually reach a settlement. I think also what I'm looking for, in a broader sense, is the degree to which there is political support for strengthening the collective bargaining laws that affect not only workers in healthcare or in railways, but also retail and lots of other places.