Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
We celebrate Black History Month!

Coming off big wins at the bargaining table, what's ahead for unions in 2024?

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) No bucks, no truck. No bucks, no truck. No bucks, no truck.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

From autoworkers to actors, nurses to newspaper reporters, more than half a million workers went on strike this year, and many emerged with big wins. So, is this a union comeback? NPR's Andrea Hsu is here to unpack all this. Hi, Andrea.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: Hi.

FADEL: So, is it a comeback?

HSU: Well, it's hard to say exactly. You know, since the 1980s, there have really only been a few years when we saw unions asserting themselves like they did this year. Most recently, it was back in 2018 and 2019. But then it was government workers, teachers, you know, who walked off the job in a bunch of states. I talked with Johnnie Kallas about this. He runs Cornell's Labor Action Tracker. And he said, what's notable about this year is that it's really been workers in the private sector, at companies, who have driven the surge.

JOHNNIE KALLAS: Which is important because that's where unions have been weakest. And it remains to be seen whether this really translates into more sustainable gains or an increasing unionization rate over time.

HSU: Because, Leila, right now, only 6% of private sector workers in the U.S. belong to unions.

FADEL: Well, that's a small share - 6%. Do unions seem to have the wind at their back? Could this be a turning point?

HSU: Well, I think it's really too soon to tell. I am closely watching what is happening with the UAW. You know, the union president, Shawn Fain - he has his sights set on Tesla and also all of these foreign automakers like Nissan and Volkswagen that have non-union plants in the South that the UAW has tried to organize in the past and failed. But, you know, the union is coming off major wins at the bargaining table and at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., Shawn Fain says already they have had more than a thousand workers sign union cards. He says workers are being harassed for wearing union stickers and passing out union fliers. And he also added this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHAWN FAIN: Volkswagen has even gone so far as to start each shift by having frontline supervisors hold quick captive-audience meetings where they read out anti-union talking points.

HSU: Now, this is exactly what happened with the newly formed unions at Amazon and Starbucks. Those companies have fought quite successfully to put up roadblocks.

FADEL: To put up roadblocks - so what does that mean for these fledgling unions at Amazon and Starbucks?

HSU: Well, they are pretty stalled at the moment. The Amazon Labor Union was finally certified in January this year, almost a year ago. But Amazon refuses to recognize the union. That's a legal mess that's ongoing. And at Starbucks, around 380 stores have now unionized. But not a single one has gotten a fresh contract because each side is accused the other of not bargaining in good faith. And getting a contract is really the whole point of having a union, to be able to collectively bargain for wages and benefits. I talked with Ian Meagher, a barista in Oregon, whose store voted to unionize almost two years ago.

IAN MEAGHER: I kind of knew that it wasn't going to be a quick fight. It wasn't going to be an easy fight. I would have preferred that Starbucks play ball.

HSU: But Meagher says, in a way, the union has already won something. Starbucks has actually granted non-union stores some benefits that the union had pushed for, like credit card tipping and faster sick time accrual. These are things that workers now have in the vast majority of Starbucks stores - 90-some percent of them.

MEAGHER: It's been a real win for the working class - you know, for the baristas of Starbucks on the whole.

HSU: The other week, Starbucks sent an email to the union saying it hopes the two sides resume contract talks in January and get ratification.

FADEL: Okay, so we'll stay tuned for more on that. NPR's Andrea Hsu - thank you so much, Andrea.

HSU: You're welcome.

FADEL: A note here that Amazon is among NPR's financial supporters and pays to distribute some NPR content. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.