Unions have long been the backbone of the American middle class. They promote higher wages and better benefits, make political organizing easier, and improve job security. Since the 1920s, though, union membership began dramatically declining in the United States. The country was seeing economic prosperity, and anti-union sentiment was on the rise from both employers and the government.
Fast forward to 2022, American workers who are union members account for 10.3 percent of the workforce, according to Pew Research. Retail, one of America’s largest work sectors, makes up 12 percent of all jobs available in America, according to Jobmonkey.com. It’s no secret that retail is one of the backbones of the American economy.
Among the impact of COVID-19 and rising inflation, retail workers are demanding better working conditions, and some are forming unions to engage in collective bargaining. In March, workers at outdoor equipment and apparel retailer REI in New York voted 88-14 to unionize, making them the first union at the company. In May, Target workers at a Virginia store began efforts to unionize, although the status of the effort is now closed. Amazon workers at a Staten Island warehouse voted to unionize.
There is a trend in retail workers trying to unionize, and it only seems to be on the uptick. In some states, unionizing can prove quite difficult. Currently, less than 5 percent of retail workers are in a union according to Peter Ikeler, an associate professor of Sociology at SUNY College at Old Westbury.
“Something is bubbling in the workforce today, pushing a union direction,” Ikeler said to FashionUnited. “Union favorability ratings are the highest they’ve been in the past 20 years. I do believe the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to this. We also had a recession after the lockdown, a tight labor market post lockdown, and these combinations causing a shock to the economic system contribute to union support.”
Ikeler has also pointed to activity on the left of the political spectrum that has contributed to union support, including Black Lives Matter protests, both Bernie Sanders campaigns for president, and the growth of the democratic socialists of America. With the labor movement being under the left of the American political sphere, there was a form of cross-pollination contributing to union support.
Despite efforts for retail workers to unionize, the lack of collective bargaining rights laws and right-to-work states can make it hard for workers to do so. However, there is hope for retail workers trying to seek workplace protections without unionizing.
Organizing a union, in general, can be challenging. A majority of employees have to express interest in joining a union by signing authorization cards, then they must petition for a union election with the National Labor Relations Board. Then there is an election date, where employees must express interest in unionizing again, and there needs to be a majority vote in support of the union.
For workers who find this route difficult or challenging, the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) runs a workers center called the Retail Action Project. The Project works on worker campaigns for specific issues. One of the things they encourage employees who aren’t unionized to do is petition their employers for workplace changes as a form of collective action. Although, employees in some states with weak employee protections are encouraged to be as cautious as possible when fighting for workplace rights.
“There’s always a risk of employee termination when you’re organizing,” said Adam Obernauer, organizing director at RWDSU, to FashionUnited. “That’s why we tell employees interested in forming a union or petitioning an employer to do it quietly, in the hopes that management won’t find out before they have the numbers, they need to make their demands significant. Workers are protected by the Labor Board and the National Labor Relations Act, but employers will still try and terminate workers.”
Obernauer says that there are legislative efforts to make unionizing and collective bargaining for retail workers easier, but it will be an uphill battle. Like passing any other bill, the legislative process isn’t easy.
As people’s relationship with work continues to change and the cost of living spirals, the perfect storm for more retail workers to unionize is brewing. This could stand to change the retail landscape in America with a new workers' rights movement.