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Young people lead new wave of labor organizing according to UC professors

University of California workers walk toward Wilshire Boulevard holding signs. Across the nation, there has been an increase in unionization and labor organization. (Shengfeng Chien/Daily Bruin)

By Celeste Paapanen

May 8, 2022 9:39 p.m.

In recent months, there has been an increase in union election petitions, signaling a new wave of labor organizing that is led by young individuals, University of California community members said.

According to the National Labor Relations Board, the independent federal agency dedicated to addressing labor rights violations and protecting workers’ right to organize, there was a 57% increase in union election petitions from October 2021 to March 2022, with 1,174 election petitions filed with the NLRB compared to 748 from October 2020 to March 2021.

Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Labor Center, said Amazon and Starbucks workers’ historic wins exemplify the increase in unionization.

Amazon warehouse workers on Staten Island voted to form the company’s first union in April 2022, according to the Amazon Labor Union. The first Starbucks union was formed in December at a Buffalo, New York, location, and, since then, additional Starbucks locations have followed suit, according to Starbucks Workers United.

The upsurge in unionization is reflected in countless other sectors, such as fast-food, that have not historically organized active unionization efforts, Wong said.

Membership in Rideshare Drivers United, an organization led by Uber and Lyft drivers, increased from 400 members at its founding in 2018 to 20,000 members in 2022, according to the organization.

Ken Jacobs, chair of the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, said the rise in the number of shops unionizing was partly inspired by the Occupy movement, which advocates for the redistribution of wealth; the Bernie Sanders campaign; and successful teacher strikes that have occurred in the past few years.

He added that these movements sparked an interest in labor rights and unionization pre-pandemic, which is now evolving into the current wave of unionization.

Wong also said unionization has increased because of economic inequalities exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Workers were paid inadequate wages while having to work in unsafe conditions, leading them to question why they have been put at risk and subsequently unionize, Wong said.

“They (workers) were told by the country that they were essential; they were regularly treated as though they were disposable,” Jacobs said.

Tobias Higbie, a labor studies and history professor, said workers who are unionizing are demanding respect at the workplace, higher wages, better benefits and improved rest time.

Higbie added that the pandemic pushed issues of workplace safety and work hours back into the forefront of labor organizing.

Higbie also said the increase in unionization represents the growth of democracy at work and in the country as a whole. Workers can lose many of their democratic rights in the workplace, but unions have the power to inform workers about politics, influence public policy and prevent the spread of misinformation, he added.

Higbie said a lack of unionization exacerbates the wealth gap, as corporate leaders tend to hold more power. Higbie added that he hopes society will see a redistribution of power and wealth through an increase in unionization.

The current unionization trends also have the power to inspire future efforts, Wong said, adding that when a group succeeds in unionizing, other groups are encouraged to stage their own effort. For example, the Staten Island Amazon union will likely spark interest in unionization at other Amazon sites, he said.

This increase in unionization is often spearheaded by young people, Wong added. He said this is because more young workers understand that in order to improve working conditions, they must come together to organize.

“I hope young people today will take away from this experience that there is tremendous benefit in working together in organizing and in making change and that corporate America is never going to do the right thing,” Wong said.

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