The Jobs and Wages sections of the State of Working Wisconsin 2022 provide solid evidence of the strength of the economy in 2022, and the way that strength has been embraced and leveraged by workers. Low unemployment rates, high rates of job changing, and increasing median wages provide evidence of workers’ growing strength in the labor market.
The context of opportunity allows workers to move to better jobs, or to use the threat of exit to improve the jobs they have.
The pandemic helped clarify for many workers the contradiction between the essential contributions of their work and the often impossible structure of it. Workers are making the most of opportunities and improving their jobs. Sometimes workers negotiate for better wages, hours, supervision, or training individually, understanding that their employer has greater interest in keeping them. Sometimes people are identifying problems with co-workers, and collectively making their concerns and demands clear to management.
Increasingly, workers are also seeking to organize unions to represent their interests and formalize their bargaining power.
Union support reaches high not seen in nearly 60 years
Support for unions has grown, and at 71 percent, according to Gallup, is the highest it has been since 1965. 2022 has seen an unprecedented wave of organizing. A Bloomberg Law analysis of union elections in the first half of 2022 shows that unions won 639 elections to represent 43,150 workers, the highest first half of the year totals in 20 years. Additionally, sectors that do not have deep union histories are organizing, most famously this year Starbucks and Amazon warehouses. An NPR analysis found that while historically food and accommodation accounted for just 4 percent of union petitions 20 years ago, in the first half of 2022, food and accommodation (which includes Starbucks) accounted for more than one-fourth of union petitions. Food and accommodation workers and Amazon warehouse workers are increasingly bringing younger workers, and college educated workers to the labor movement.
While these nationally known drives dominate the public consciousness, the current wave of organizing is not only due to the rapid increase in Starbucks organizing. Bloomberg’s analysis of union wins shows that Starbucks organizing accounts for 200 of the 639 victories in the first half of 2022, and even without Starbucks victories, the total number of wins in the first half of 2022 is higher than all union wins in 2021.
Considering the number of workers covered by union victories, Starbucks has a smaller impact. With the average Starbucks unit covering just 27 workers, Starbucks accounts for 12 percent of the 43,150 workers covered by union wins in the first half of 2022. Starbucks has been an important contributor to the wave of unionization in 2022, but these data make it clear that there’s a lot of other organizing going on.
Surging interest in unions has come to Wisconsin and workers are increasingly reaching out to labor institutions for information and support. One such resource is the South Central Federation of Labor (SCFL) which has experienced an unprecedented level of interest in unions in 2022. According to SCFL President Kevin Gundlach, the number of leads coming into his office in 2022 is at least ten times the level of previous years. He points out that the number of job actions and strikes in the region is five times the usual level seen in previous years.
For 2022, the State of Working Wisconsin features stories of worker organizing in Wisconsin, focusing on four unique campaigns and providing workers’ perspective on the issues that are currently driving interest in unionization.
This is an exciting moment for workers as they demand more from work in formal and informal, individual and collective ways. Some workers have gotten contracts, improved wages, and more voice in their jobs. The growing threat of unionization alone has had an impact, as companies improve job quality in an attempt to stave off union efforts.
But there are no guarantees that a new era of unionization and worker power will emerge from this very good year. Corporate power is high and antiquated federal labor laws make the project of resisting unionization easier than the project of building worker organization. State laws, like Act 10 and so called “right-to-work” in Wisconsin, undermine union organizing potential as well. Perhaps most notably, this moment is defined by workers’ slightly higher power due to low unemployment rates. The Federal Reserve is increasing interest rates to “cool down” the economy – a move intended to push unemployment up.
Workers’ gains are real, but precarious. To keep expanding them will take a combination of continued tight labor markets, stronger policy to hold up job quality, and labor law reform at the state and federal level. But most important of all are the ongoing efforts of workers themselves. And we feature that work here.
The national movement organizing union representation for Starbucks workers came to Wisconsin this year. By June, four Wisconsin Starbucks locations had voted yes on unionization. But these weren’t the first coffee shops to unionize in Wisconsin.
In June 2022, workers at the Pabst Theater Group in Milwaukee voted overwhelmingly to unionize. Workers identified low wages, the rising cost of living, and weak communication between workers and management as key issues to solve together.
In January 2022, quality assurance workers at Middleton-based Raven Software began the process of forming a union. A month earlier, unexpected layoffs had prompted a staff walkout that provided the foundation for union organizing.
Across the nation, the COVID-19 pandemic intensified problems that nurses faced in their work. In late August, nurses at UW Health voted to support a three day walkout, the most recent action in the nurses’ campaign for a union which began in 2019.