Rarely has the chasm between rank-and-file-workers and the extremely wealthy been this wide. While millions of people have lost jobs, gone hungry and struggled to pay for their basic needs, billionaires' wealth soared to new heights in 2020.
And although the pandemic made things worse, America's wealth gap has largely been expanding since the 1980s. Among the many contributing factors: Far fewer jobholders have a seat at the table in negotiating with upper management than they did decades earlier. In 2020, union membership hit a new modern low.
"There is a direct correlation that when union membership is down, economic inequality is up," said Kent Wong, executive director of the UCLA Labor Center, a department that studies labor and economic issues.
In cities across the US, and between the walls of some of the world's largest enterprises, there is a swelling of union organizing activity that has been propelled by the pandemic and the recession.
"I do think that the current moment provides an opportunity for unions that has not existed in many, many years," Wong said, "and that there is a growing national consensus that there needs to be dramatic changes to ensure that the economy does indeed work for every-body and not just Wall Street." He added: "There is a sea change with regards to issues involving workers' rights."
A 'level of desperation'
Generally, economic downturns are bad for union organizing. In fact, the Great Depression fueled the single largest union push in US history, said Wong, of the UCLA Labor Center. There are some parallels that can be drawn between then and now, when the pandemic has deepened the divide be-tween the haves and the have-nots.
In the Depression era, amid the staggering unemployment rates and the considerable economic inequality, a tremendous amount of organizing activity took place, he said, adding that a mass social movement pushed President Franklin D. Roosevelt to use the power of the federal government to improve the rights of workers. A similar phenomenon appears to be playing out now.
State of employment
The pandemic has put a spotlight on workers' rights issues and accelerated an organizing movement that's been slowly building in recent years. "For quite a while, workers have been really frustrated with not having a voice at their workplaces… it just reached a breaking point," Ileen DeVault, a professor at Cornell, said. "In that way, I don't think [these efforts] are new."
What is new is that other groups of workers such as nurses, gig workers and warehouse employees are being revered as critical during the pandemic while the stark inequalities and their vulnerable situations — such as unsafe working conditions, low pay and lack of access to health care — are being exposed, said Celine McNicholas, director of government affairs and labor counsel for the Economic Policy Institute.
"This is not a moment where these issues can be ignored," she said. In 2020, nearly 14.3 million workers belonged to a union, 321,000 fewer than the year before, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics' annual union membership report released Jan. 2021. In 1983, more than 17.7 million workers were unionized. The outsourcing of manufacturing jobs, coupled with economic downturns, political influence, corporate actions, and the increasingly arcane and anti-union nature of the nation's labor laws have all played a role in decreasing union density in re-cent decades, said labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor at the University of California - Santa Barbara. A Gallup poll released in September 2020 showed that 65% of Americans surveyed were in favor of labor unions, matching a high notched in 2003 and representing a significant increase from a Great Recession-era low of 48%.
"We're looking at numbers that are so far afield from that," McNicholas said. "That is a lot of space between workers getting what they want in a system that provides that choice in a meaningful way and a system that we have."
From Blue-Collar to Big Tech
At Alphabet, the parent company to tech giant Google, a grassroots workers or-ganization that formed without federal ratification has grown to more than 800 members since its early January launch. Called the Alphabet Workers Union, the organization seeks to provide an amplified voice for a wide swath of Alphabet employees — including full-time work-ers, part-timers, vendors and contractors — and create a power structure for those diverse concerns and desires to be heard.
"I think that the recognition we've gotten from our coworkers, who have taken a real risk to join and support us, and from external forces — especially including unions and other labor movements from beyond tech — is really a validation of our underlying message: That unions are for everyone, and tech is no exception," Alex Gorowara, a Google software engineer and Alphabet Workers Union founding member. "The company is making money hand over fist," he said. "It is not unreasonable for the workers to expect to get higher wages and better benefits."
A potential ally in the White House
A day before the 2020 election, Joe Biden told a crowd of union members in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, that he'd be "the most pro-union president you've ever seen."
The Scranton, Pennsylvania native has long garnered support from working-class Americans, but after four years of "fierce anti-union, anti-worker policies", labor unions mobilized behind Biden in key battleground states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, UCLA's Wong said. "These were the people who got Joe Biden elected," he said.
Biden's pro-union campaign plan included forming a cabinet-level working group in the first 100 days of the presidency to increase union density. Biden also promised to require federal contractors to sign neutrality agreements com-mitting to not run anti-union campaigns. Depending on how it's written, such a policy could have a ripple effect on Big Tech, which has resisted unionization efforts in the past. Companies like Amazon, Google and Microsoft contract with the federal government.
In the early days of the new presidency, Biden signed an executive order that restored collective bargaining power to federal employees, and the administration took aim at the National Labor Relations Board, ousting appointed officials such as Peter Robb, the board's general counsel. Robb, a longtime management-side lawyer, most notably served as the lead attorney in the Reagan Administration's watershed case that decertified the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization in 1981. (The Reagan administration's firing of more than 11,300 striking air traffic controllers and the subsequent PATCO takedown have been viewed as catalysts for a decline in union activity.)
Biden on February 17 nominated Jennifer Abruzzo, the Communication Workers of America's special counsel for strategic initiatives, to replace Robb and tapping Marty Walsh, the Boston mayor and former union lead-er (Laborers Union Local 223, and Secretary Treasurer of the Boston Metropolitan District Building Trades Council), as labor secretary.