Thursday, May 5, 2022

Why are labor unions are having their moment?

Yesterday I shared about the moment labor unions are currently having, with representation petitions surging 57% over the past six months, and 625% in the hospitality and food service industry over the past decade. 

The question is why

To be sure, toxic management, poor workplace culture, and low wages are a factor. But they are a factor anytime a labor union takes hold in a workplace. I'm looking for the reasons our current labor movement is having its moment in time.

Here are my thoughts.

1/ This is not your grandpa's labor union. These are not blue-collar workers toiling in manufacturing plants. These are college-educated individuals choosing to work in service-sector jobs. As a result, their expectations are different as to what they want to get out of their jobs, and the believe that they have an ability to impact real and meaningful change.

2/ Gen Z is more activist and more socialist than any prior generation. Gen Z cut their teeth on outward facing protests, such as the Black Lives Matter protests. Now they're turning their activist lens inward, focusing on their relationships with their own employers. Moreover, and more than any previous generation, Gen Z leans way more socialist than capitalist. They don't view their jobs as an exchange of labor for compensation. Instead, they view them as a collaborative partnership. They are demanding a seat at the table to set their terms and conditions of employment because they believe they are entitled to it. 

3/ Safety and other Covid-related issues. During the pandemic, workers saw themselves as essential but often felt fungible by how their employers treated them. This perceived mistreatment created resentment and a desire to do something about it.

4/ Historically low unemployment and high job vacancies (the Great Resignation/Reshuffling). Employees currently have options and leverage. Employers still have a high level of job openings and nowhere near enough employees to fill them. Employees are using this leverage collectively to push for change.

5/ Hospitality and food service jobs cannot be offshored. Often when faced with organizing, an employer will simply layoff workers and move the work oversees. This is not possible, however, in restaurants and bars. Some work can be automated (see order kiosks replacing cashiers in fast food restaurants). But by and large these jobs are much more difficult to eliminate or offshore.

Why does this matter? It matters because if an employer doesn't understand why its employees are (thinking about) unionizing, it cannot meaningfully engage them to try to convince them otherwise. If they're worried about safety and having a seat at the stakeholder table, no amount of money will make them truly satisfied to shut out the union. 

* Image via Ethan B., CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons