Why Widespread Unionization Efforts May Collectively Fail

With a possible recession on the way, unionization could slow down as more employees fear standing up for their worker rights

By Kari Apted | Published

Unions offer workers many benefits, including better pay, reasonable work schedules, and job security. The COVID-19 pandemic pressed many frontline workers to organize into unions—a trend that still continues as the job market favors employees over employers. However, if the predicted recession hits in 2023, the current boom in unionization may collectively fail.

According to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), union representation petitions increased 58% during the first nine months of Fiscal Year 2022 (October 1-June 30). This figure exceeded all union petitions filed in Fiscal Year 2021. Public opinion of unionization is also at its highest level since 1965, with Gallup data showing 71% of Americans now approve of labor unions.

But pursuing unionization is always a bit of a risk, especially if the predicted 2023 recession hits. During a recession, the labor market will swing more in favor of employers. That means that fewer workers will feel empowered to risk their jobs for the sake of unionization, according to Catherine Creighton, director of Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations Branch in Buffalo, NY.

“I think it will certainly make it more difficult if we do have a recession, where it’s harder for employees to find other employment, they [may] be less likely to take the risk of unionization,” Creighton said. “I don’t see that we are in that position at this point, because employers are still having a really hard time filling jobs, the baby boomers have retired and all evidence points to the fact that the labor market is going to be favorable to employees in the near future.”

So far, 2022 has been a banner year for labor unions. The pandemic brought the Great Resignation—a phenomenon where many workers quit upon realizing that their salaries and work conditions were subpar. The workers who stayed put often decided to organize and fight for their rights and the well-being of future employees.

For example, a New York Amazon distribution center made headlines as it became the first Amazon location to successfully form a union. At hundreds of Starbucks locations nationwide, employees voted in favor of creating labor unions to improve their own working conditions. Interestingly, pay increases were not listed among the reasons these workers sought union representation.

All of this comes at a time when the job market is wide open for employees, especially those who work in retail, food service, transportation, warehousing, and accommodations. There are a combined 1 million more jobs in these sectors compared to before the pandemic. This has led some companies to enhance wages and benefits to lure more workers to open positions.

Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, believes that the current fervor for unionization won’t be stopped by the potential recession. “I think it’s the collective action that you’re seeing that isn’t going to get stopped by whatever the recessionary forces are because working people have walked through fire during this pandemic, showed up every day to work, in many cases risk their lives. And they’re ready to expect more in their work life and demand dignity and respect on the job.”

However, some employers are already pushing back against unionization efforts by firing union organizers, giving non-union stores special benefits, and even closing locations. At Starbucks, 350 stores petitioned to unionize between December 2021 and September 2022, with the number peaking in March but steadily falling off since. This may be due to interim CEO Howard Schultz pushing back harder against the unionization trend.

Starbucks spokesman Reggie Borges told CNBC, “Our focus is on working directly with our partners to reimagine the future of Starbucks. We respect our partners’ rights to organize but believe that working directly together – without a 3rd party – is the best way to elevate the partner experience at Starbucks.”

Although pushing for unionization is a risk for workers when the threat of a recession looms over the horizon, they seem undeterred for now. With countless retail and dining establishment hanging “now hiring” signs on their doors, workers know that other positions exist if their attempts at unionization fail. Whether those options will remain during a 2023 recession remains to be seen, especially in light of an emerging trend of laying off workers.