American labor unions often justify their long decline by claiming the deck is stacked against them.
They say all they really need is a legal environment that is more favorable to unionization, and workers will line up around the block for representation.
What if the legal environment isn’t the problem at all? What if the problem is that workers have taken a long look at unions and are turned off not only by the sales pitch but by what unions are selling?
Take the vote to unionize workers at an Amazon plant in Bessemer, Alabama last year. To say that it did not go well for the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union is an understatement. They only received 738 votes, or under 16% of the about 5,000 eligible workers, to go for unionization.
The National Labor Relations Board has now ordered a rerun of the election because of complaints by union officials about where a U.S. Post Office mailbox was placed. The union is already showing signs of worry by saying there will be issues with the new election, even before voting starts.
Perhaps they know something that we do not.
Even before what may be another embarrassing union defeat, union officials are using Amazon as a scapegoat to explain away their organizing losses by claiming the laws do not make organizing easy enough.
However, it’s more likely that workers in general are just not interested in joining these types of organizations that have made headlines lately because of corruption, the one size fits all outdated nature of union representation, or simply because they disagree with the politics of union officials.
This could be why according to Bureau of Labor statistics data, the percentage of the American workforce that is unionized has fallen from 20.1% in 1983 to 10.3% last year.
The ongoing narrative is that unions are the David to business’s Goliath yet the comparison is hard to swallow. It is difficult to make the case you are the underdog when the President of the United States has pledged. “I intend to be the most pro-union President leading the most pro-union administration in American history,” and executive agencies such as the National Labor Relations Board and Department of Labor are moving toward executive actions to make unionization easier.
Similarly, legislation that would help unions organize and hurt independent contractors has already passed the U.S. House of Representatives. And prominent politicians such as Sen. Bernie Sanders have attacked job creators on behalf of organized labor, and not to mention that unions spent over $12 billion on politics and lobbying during the 2020 election period.
And yet, even with all the new pressure from federal agencies and news of strikes such as the ones at Starbucks, workers are still shying away from unions.
One big reason is that workers don’t think unions will deliver on their promises, and what little confidence there was in organized labor continues to slide. According to Gallup, only 28% of Americans expressed a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in unions, which was down from 31% the year before.
Even labor activist Chris Smalls, a former Amazon worker who is spearheading efforts to unionize at a fulfillment center in Staten Island, New York, admitted to ABC News that the unions have a problem with would-be rank-and-file by going so big on politics.
"If you lose sight of the workers and drown out the workers' stories and their voices and politicize it, that doesn't help at all," Smalls said. “Bringing politicians into it, I don't care if it's Bernie Sanders or the president, that's not going to resonate with the workers."
He makes a good point. Increasingly, workers have decided that union representation is not what they need. They’re not seeking it out, not signing onto unionization drives, and voting “no” in high profile ‘must win’ organizing drives where unions have brought out all the celebrity and political stops.
Perhaps the better analogy is that workers are the David against Big Labor’s Goliath. The giant is doing everything it can to take away David’s sling.