Two men in matching uniforms in a warehouse standing closely and talking, with a supervisor nearby. Photo by Tiger Lily from Pexels under Pexels license.

The United States has over 8,000 businesses with over 1000 employees. Starbucks has 15,000 coffee shops and 350,000 employees. Amazon employs over 1.5 million. The United States is also home to several large unions. The National Education Association has 3 million union members. The United Auto Workers (UAW) union has over 400,000 members. These business and labor giants frequent headlines and news of negotiations between management and workers seem to tell a story of battling juggernauts, using strikes and union-busting tactics to outdo the other. 

Over the past several decades unions have lost some of their strength. However, in recent years large demonstrations and organizing have signaled the beginning of a possible shift. Sociological research can help workers better understand the context of this shift and the impacts these dynamics can have on employers and employees. 

Union Membership

In 1935, US workers gained the right to form a union in the National Labor Relations Act in the private sector. Union formation and management was then assigned to the National Labor Relations Board and today has the power to manage elections and mediate employee-employer bargaining. However, over the past 40 years union membership in the public sector has remained stagnant at 33% and drastically declined in the private sector to an all-time low of 6% in 2021. However, with discussions around the distribution of wealth, minimum wage, and an apparent shortage of workers seeing an uptick in recent years, this historic decline may turn.

  • Palley, T. I., & LaJeunesse, R. M. (2007). Social attitudes, labor law, and union organizing: Toward a new economics of union density. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 62(2), 237-254.

Unions Organizing

Research can also tell us what makes for a successful union drive. Organizing efforts that are perceived as effective in giving voice to workers’ concerns, fostering union identity among members, and convincing workers of management’s culpability of problems are more effective in organizing and gaining momentum. Workers also utilize online platforms to their advantage. These online spaces do not only allow for organizing with sometimes distant co-workers but also allow for the sharing of ideas and advocacy tactics. For example, Uber, Instacart, and other gig worker employees who lacked access to company-wide wage data used individually compiled worker-reported data to accurately calculate average wages and negotiate for fairer pay. 

Labor unions exist to not only maintain a perceived fair wage, but protect the social and political value of workers. Union organizers adopt and use numerous strategies to grow support and maintain momentum. Tactics range from rhetorical: sarcastically co-opting company messages, personal testimonials, and posting videos; to overt acts of defiance such as strikes

Union-Busting Strategies

Employers sometimes work to prevent organizing through various methods, such as lawsuits, diversion of attention, and instilling polarization through the employment of “consultants” who create tension within workplaces to keep workers divided. Additionally, they may employ strategies like misinformation campaigns, surveillance, and promoting a culture of fear to suppress unionization efforts. These tactics not only disrupt solidarity among employees but also create an environment where the idea of collective bargaining is seen as detrimental to the individual interests of workers, further hindering the formation of unions.

Unions and Society

Researchers have shown that high union membership and union presence in communities have higher wages, fringe benefits, and lower poverty rates. Additionally, union presence has a “spillover effect” – where high union presence positively impacts non-union community members. In other words, businesses (and local policymakers) located in communities with union activity are mindful of their relationship with their workers and the possibility of non-union members unionizing at a small scale or partnering with larger, existing unions. 

Unions serve as an institution of checks and balances to the power and control held by large institutions. Historically, unions have led to improved working conditions and increased retention for institutions. Today, however, a worker’s role in society has changed dramatically and the frequency and intensity of strikes, union-busting strategies, and the relationship between employer and employee is subject to change.