Labor organizing efforts achieved big gains in the retail and service sectors in 2022, suggesting high-profile campaigns at
A Bloomberg Law analysis of federal data found that the Service Employees International Union won 386 elections that added nearly 20,000 workers to their membership in 2022—a more than four-fold increase from 89 election wins that added 5,827 workers in 2021. Starbucks baristas accounted for more than two-thirds of those wins.
The United Food and Commercial Workers also more than doubled their election wins to 111 in 2022, organizing 2,552 workers.
Service and retail workers want better compensation and a stronger voice on workplace decisions, according to UFCW International Vice President and Director of Organizing Dave Young. These are employees who are joining a union because they want to improve their current workplaces rather than find new jobs, he said by phone.
“We’ve had an increasing interest in organizing from rank-and-file workers across the country that’s been growing for a number of years,” AFL-CIO Deputy Director of Organizing Christian Sweeney said in a phone interview.
Organizing gains were concentrated on units of fewer than 50 workers. These smaller units won 955 elections, up from 575 election wins in 2021, according to the analysis.
“There just has to be a common thread between the growth in retail and services, growth in independent unions, and growth in small units,” Sharon Block, a professor of practice and executive director of the Center for Labor and a Just Economy at Harvard Law School, said in an interview.
“This just says to me, the workers at Starbucks are onto something,” said Block, who is also a former National Labor Relations Board member and official in the Obama and Biden administrations. “They have come up with a model that is very attractive and inspiring—and is contagious.”
Spokespeople for Starbucks and Apple declined to comment on the organizing trends and what they expect to see in 2023.
A representative for the SEIU said that no one at the organization could comment on the union’s 328% one-year increase in representation elections.
The analysis relies on data from representation election filings with the NLRB summarized in a Bloomberg Law report. Numbers don’t include public sector union elections, elections administered by a third party, or unions voluntarily recognized by management, as these all fall outside the NLRB’s scope.
Smaller Units, More Elections
The election wins came as the Covid-19 pandemic spurred a rise of worker discontent and a push for collective bargaining, particularly among essential workers making some of the lowest wages and subject to the fewest labor protections, said Anne Lofaso, a labor professor at West Virginia University.
Smaller bargaining units are generally easier to organize, and unions have gotten better at it, Lofaso said in an interview. Independent unions have sprung up at retail locations, too, led by charismatic workers who feel slighted by their employer, she added.
“Every union starts with a grievance,” Lofaso said. In the case of a small group of service workers, “you’re more likely to band together for mutual aid and protection because it’s a community.”
But Young, the UFCW director, pushed back on the notion that smaller workplaces are easier organizing targets. There’s a smaller margin for error and the employers might not be as well-versed in labor law, he said, adding that ultimately, it’s the worker interest that matters.
“The UFCW, we don’t only organize the big pie in the sky,” Young said. “We don’t only bring good things to massive places. We bring what we can offer to people wherever they’re at.”
American worker attitudes shifted dramatically in recent years, according to the AFL-CIO’s Sweeney. The AFL-CIO, the country’s largest federation of labor unions, includes 58 unions representing more than 12 million workers.
“The scale of organizing, the degree to which workers are taking these things on for themselves, and that we’ve got more and more worker-led campaigns—it is a big change,” Sweeney said.
But it’s unclear if proliferation of smaller-unit election wins can reverse the decades-long trend of declining union density.
The percentage of American workers belonging to a union fell to 10.1% in 2022, the lowest point since the Bureau of Labor Statistics started collecting comparable data in 1983. Unions added 273,000 new members last year, but it wasn’t enough to keep up with the growth of nonunion jobs.
The business community has rejected the premise that the country is likely to see a sustained wave of organizing.
The Starbucks petitions, which represent a fraction of the coffee chain’s total company-owned stores, haven’t yet yielded contracts and are moving slowly, said Glenn Spencer, senior vice president in the employment policy division for the US Chamber of Commerce.
“Even though they won a bunch of elections, they haven’t converted that into actual due-paying members yet,” Spencer said.
Starbucks workers voted on a union at least 332 times, accounting for about 21% of all NLRB union elections held in 2022, Bloomberg Law’s data show.
Spencer acknowledged smaller-unit election wins pose a challenge for employers.
“The smaller the unit gets, the higher the win rate goes,” Spencer said. “It’s just easier for the union to pull everyone together and keep everyone on the same page as they go to vote.”
The labor board in December lowered the legal bar for unions to organize smaller groups of employees within larger workplaces. The Democratic majority overturned a Trump-era precedent that had tightened the legal test for approving smaller bargaining units and reinstated the standard set during the Obama administration.
That decision—along with the labor board’s recent move to scrutinize employers’ captive-audience meetings—makes it “a little easier for unions to organize,” said Susan Schurman, a labor professor at Rutgers University.
A mix of factors will decide how quickly unions can gobble up members. The US labor market is still tight, giving workers leverage, but employers are raising wages to compete for employees, which could placate workers, Schurman said.
“I believe we are on the cusp of the next great wave of worker organizing,” she said. “Overall, I think there’s a generation of workers that are not going to be happy with being treated like a factor of production with no rights at all at work.”
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