What unionizations at Amazon, Apple, and Starbucks may tell us about the economy : The Indicator from Planet Money Baristas and warehouse workers unite! After decades of decline, we're hearing a lot about new unions starting around the country. But union membership actually declined last year. We look at what's really happening.

What's really going on with unions

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SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.

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DARIAN WOODS, HOST:

It is jobs Friday.

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WOODS: The monthly jobs report tells us that 528,000 jobs were added to the U.S. economy in July. That's a lot more than expected. And unemployment, at 3.5%, is at a 53-year low. And that got us thinking at THE INDICATOR. Is this jobs growth that is still going on contributing to a labor market story that we've been seeing a lot in the news recently, what seems to be a turning point of union activity bouncing back from decades of decline?

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WOODS: This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Darian Woods. In the 1950s, about a third of workers belonged to a union. And that has declined a lot over the decades, continuing through 2021, with only 1 in 10 workers now belonging to a union. But if you read the headlines today, you would think that every Starbucks barista and their dog were getting unionized. This is a puzzle we just had to solve. Coming up after the break.

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WOODS: To learn more about what's happening with unions, we spoke with Heather Goodall. Heather is a union organizer for Amazon's warehouse in Schodack, N.Y. Amazon, by the way, is among NPR's financial supporters and also distributes some NPR content.

How would your son and daughter describe you?

HEATHER GOODALL: Determined, firm, but friendly. A very...

WOODS: Heather started working in Amazon's warehouse earlier this year.

GOODALL: Oh, and animated. So I think that's plenty (laughter).

WOODS: Heather was working side by side with the essential workers that have helped deliveries keep going during the pandemic. She says she joined Amazon partly because she wanted to check out how good an employer Amazon was firsthand. She was not impressed especially when she caught COVID.

GOODALL: COVID was the last straw. That was the last straw.

WOODS: Amazon did not have specific, paid COVID leave.

GOODALL: I mean, they blatantly disregarded even the fact that these people could get very sick and even die.

WOODS: And as she recovered and regained her animated spirit, she channeled her determination.

GOODALL: And I started to say to people, what do you think about a union? So we really went into high gear.

WOODS: And Heather wasn't just riled up about Amazon's health benefits policies and its working conditions.

GOODALL: Following COVID, their revenue increased considerably, and that's why we finally decided to fight back.

WOODS: We reached out to Amazon. In a statement, a spokesperson said that workers have the choice of whether or not to join a union, but the company doesn't think unions are the best answer for its employees. And, you know, that's the kind of thing a lot of businesses point out. They might also cite the costs to workers of union dues, the cost to the company of strikes, and the overall effect on the company's valuation. In fact, a paper from the Quarterly Journal of Economics finds that the valuation of a company decreases on average when employees unionize. In any case, Heather's frustration with how her employers were treating her and her colleagues, especially given Amazon's record profits, is shared by workers in all kinds of businesses. Heidi Shierholz is the president of the progressive think tank the Economic Policy Institute.

HEIDI SHIERHOLZ: If you had an employer that didn't provide sick days, didn't provide proper safety precautions when you're literally putting your life on the line to go to your job, workers who got the message there that their employer doesn't value them, it's a really, really stark reason to just stand up and join with your co-workers and demand more.

WOODS: Heidi believes the huge number of jobs being created has boosted workers' confidence to join unions.

SHIERHOLZ: Very high job availability makes workers understand that if they are fired or retaliated against for union organizing, they are very likely to be able to find another job in a relatively quick time frame. And that makes all the difference to working families.

WOODS: And it's probably not just the booming jobs landscape that is prompting growing interest in unions. It could also be booming prices, i.e., inflation. If you don't renegotiate your wages when inflation is high, you're going backwards. And for low-wage workers, who are a big part of this unionization push, that determines how much food is in the pantry. So inflation could be contributing to the surge of interest in unions that can negotiate inflation adjustments on your behalf. So Heidi says you add up all these different reasons and it explains a lot about what's happening with retail workers and baristas around the country.

SHIERHOLZ: It's not yet showing up in the data, but I do think that this momentum that we're seeing - it's real. It's undeniable.

WOODS: So if it is real, it raises the question, why is this apparent trend not showing up in the data? Well, for one thing, the data that Heidi is talking about - the number of Americans in unions - those numbers have not come out for 2022. We'll know better when those numbers come in at the end of the year. And the early stats on union applications this year are rising.

But Heidi says there is something else going on that could drag down any potential increase. And that is, not as many public sector employees are getting hired these days compared to the private sector. And public sector employees tend to be much more likely to be unionized. And so when you have more delivery drivers, who are not usually unionized, and fewer teachers - highly unionized - that means there's likely going to be fewer unionized Americans overall. And long term, there is another headwind that union organizers face - what Heidi says is an increasingly hostile attitude to unions by employers over the decades.

SHIERHOLZ: It used to be just the most anti-union companies that would behave that way in the face of a union drive. And now it is the playbook. There's been a whole rise in an industry of union avoidance, union busting consultants. You can see that as the numbers go down.

WOODS: Heidi points out that retaliating against joining a union is illegal. But, of course, it happens in practice. And she says the government hasn't updated the law to combat new or more widespread anti-union activity from employers, like anti-union posters with misleading information, for example.

SHIERHOLZ: They just did not allow labor law to evolve to counteract this massively changed landscape that people trying to organize a union are facing.

WOODS: But Heidi points to one key statistic that might encourage those who are forming unions - the view of the public. A Gallup survey found two-thirds of Americans and an even higher amount among younger Americans have a favorable view of them. And that's the highest share since 1965. Even though most Americans are not in a union, a lot want to be.

SHIERHOLZ: There's been this spark here that then can really dip into the big pool of people, like, who exist in that gap - who aren't in a union but want to be in a union. And I think we're really seeing that now.

WOODS: And one story that may illustrate this is when Amazon organizer Heather Goodall went to an Amazon warehouse in Schodack, N.Y. Amazon called the police because two of Heather's companions weren't Amazon employees.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #1: You want to talk to Amazon's company's...

GOODALL: Right.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #1: ...Legal team?

GOODALL: Yes.

WOODS: Heather was signing Amazon workers up to her new union.

GOODALL: So it's simply an informational session to help employees understand their rights.

WOODS: It was this tense moment - Heather and a couple of other union organizers up against the police.

GOODALL: This is not a police matter. This is an employee-employer matter.

WOODS: The police backed down, and they even offered to help in the future.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #1: Maybe there'd be a designated time where you guys...

GOODALL: Let's do that.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #1: ...And give out some literature to...

GOODALL: Because...

WOODS: The two officers said Heather can call them ahead of the next union visit to Amazon. And after some handshakes, the cops left.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #2: Thank you.

GOODALL: My pleasure.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #2: Take care. Keep fighting the fight.

GOODALL: Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #2: Yeah, bye-bye.

GOODALL: Oh, I appreciate it.

WOODS: Of course, a lot of police famously love their own police unions. But Heather prefers to see this friendliness as part of something bigger.

GOODALL: We're seeing a shift in unionization and people wanting to be a part of a better future. And I think people are feeling that.

WOODS: And a shift has started in warehouses and coffeeshops around the country. And Heidi says whether or not that favorable view of unions translates into how people vote, that will likely determine whether or not this trend continues.

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WOODS: This episode was produced by senior producer Viet Le with engineering from Robert Rodriguez. Kathryn Yang checked the facts. Kate Concannon edits the show. And THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

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