Opinion | The Power in Numbers

It’s not easy to create a
union in the United States, but some
workers are determined to try.

Supported by

Photographs by Damon Winter

Text by Binyamin Appelbaum

In early September 1921, the federal government dispatched thousands of troops and 15 fighter planes to Logan County, W.Va., to assist in the violent suppression of thousands of coal miners seeking the right to unionize.

“You understand we wouldn’t try to kill these people at first,” Gen. Billy Mitchell reassured reporters assembled to hear the government’s plans. “We’d drop tear gas all over the place. If they refused to disperse, then we’d open up with artillery.”

By Sept. 5 — Labor Day — the miners had given up.

The era of gun battles between capital and labor is long over. But on this Labor Day, 100 years after the Battle of Blair Mountain, it remains far harder for workers in the United States to unionize than almost anywhere else in the democratic, developed world.

In place of brute force, corporations now rely on the force of law — and the laxity of law enforcement — to impede organizing and to undermine unions. Just 6.2 percent of private-sector workers were unionized in 2019, the lowest level since the Great Depression, although union membership rates are higher in the public sector.

Yet workers keep trying to create new unions: for 162 workers at a sausage-casing factory in Parkin, Ark.; 56 workers at a rock-climbing gym in Crystal City, Va.; 100 workers at a nursing home in Wheeling, Ill.; and 70 drywall installers in Orange, Calif., among other petitions filed with the federal government in August.

Starbucks workers in Buffalo recently announced the formation of a new union, Starbucks Workers United, which is seeking to represent employees at three stores.

In Waco, Texas, workers at a Pilgrim’s Pride poultry plant completed the process of creating a union in July. They are scheduled to start negotiating their first contract on Tuesday.

In the face of obdurate corporate antipathy, workers also are finding new ways to organize and exercise power. The “Fight for $15” movement has pressed for higher wages for fast-food workers without formally organizing those workers. The Alphabet Workers Union, created this year by Google workers, is effectively a lobbying group that also seeks to speak for the independent contractors who form a majority of the company’s work force.

Workers, like those portrayed on this page, often describe their motivations in similar terms. They are not just seeking higher wages and improved working conditions. They are also seeking a more equal relationship with their employers. And they are seeking to obtain together what they cannot obtain individually.

The Battle of Blair Mountain, like other bloody battles between workers and corporations in the early 20th century, is little remembered today, and there is a temptation to conclude it has been forgotten because in the end, the workers mostly won. During the Great Depression, the government broke with its long history of reflexive support for employers. It enacted legal protections for collective bargaining, created a welfare state and wrote into law many of the union movement’s longstanding goals, like ceilings on work hours and floors on wages.

But as the economy has evolved, unions have found themselves unable to win necessary revisions to that grand bargain. They have struggled to defend workers in old-line industries and to organize workers in emerging sectors like retail and health care.

The nation’s largest private-sector employers, Walmart and Amazon, have proven adept at preventing unions from taking root. Walmart famously closed the meat-cutting departments at all of its stores after the meat cutters at a Texas store voted to create a union. This year, Amazon defeated a unionization drive at an Alabama warehouse using tactics that violated labor laws, a National Labor Relations Board hearing officer concluded last month.

It is not a coincidence that as union membership has declined, employers have been able to pocket a significantly larger share of the nation’s economic output. The coronavirus pandemic has also delivered a harsh reminder that without unions, many workers have little power to press employers for safer working conditions or for paid leave when it is not safe to work.

The union movement retains pockets of strength, most importantly in the public sector but also in the representation of high-skilled workers like airline pilots, plumbers and baseball players. Workers with college degrees are now more likely to be in unions than those who have only high-school degrees.

That, however, has always been the easy part. The union movement began among high-skilled workers, because they were already in a stronger bargaining position. The challenge is to represent those who are less skilled and more easily replaced.

There is some promise in the current moment. President Biden’s public cheerleading for unions has no obvious precedent. Polls show public sentiment has swung in favor of unions in recent years. And in a tight labor market that has employers scrambling to hire, some workers see an opportunity to secure a little more power. “With the pandemic and labor shortages — the fact that for once we’re not totally disposable, they need us — it was the perfect time,” Alexis Rizzo, a Starbucks worker in the Buffalo area, told The Times.

Any revival of the union movement, however, is unlikely to gain significant traction unless the federal government is willing to do now what it should have done 100 years ago: protect the rights of Americans and ensure every worker is free to seek strength in numbers.

The workers, from top left: Catherine Turcyn, a dog trainer at PetSmart, joined United for Respect, a nonprofit organization fighting to improve the lives of people who work in retail. Carlos Aviles, a pharmacy technician at Temple University Hospital and a member of the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals, has been a strong voice for frontline technicians. Monica Moody has worked for both Amazon and Walmart and pushed both retail and e-commerce giants to offer adequate paid sick leave. Shannon Wait, reached a rare settlement in a complaint against unfair labor practices after she was suspended from her job as a data technician. Will Magnant is part of the growing movement of call center workers like himself fighting for better working conditions. Parul Koul is a software engineer at Google and the executive chair of the Alphabet Workers Union. Tracy Pack is a floor nurse at Jefferson Frankford Hospital in Philadelphia and an early voice in support of unionizing. Gustavo Ajche, a founding member of the Workers Justice Project, is a food-app delivery worker in New York City. Lainna Fader is the director of audience development at The New Yorker magazine, which has a newly active union. Cody Fitzgerald is a lead singer and guitarist for the band Stolen Jars, and a co-founder of the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers. Cynthia Murray is a Walmart associate, and the founding member of United for Respect.

The workers, from bottom left: Esperanza Jimenez, a janitor, has been part of an effort to unionize workers at Florida’s largest janitorial services company. Steve Bailey, a casino bellman, has been a leader in the workers’ effort to join the Culinary and Bartenders Union. Ambrachelle Hampton, a poultry worker in Waco, Texas, was instrumental in the successful vote to join the United Food and Commercial Workers local 540. Cody Purcell, a wind technician for Invenergy, joined the vote to unionize with IBEW last year. Thomas Shade operates heavy equipment on large-scale solar installation for DC Solar Solutions and is active with the Green Workers Alliance. Rebekah Sanders is a reporter at the Arizona Republic and was a leader in motivating colleagues to join the NewsGuild. Alexander Nieblas, who works at the Blüm dispensary in San Leandro, Calif, is part of a growing movement to unionize cannabis workers. Elias Lopez, a delivery worker for Imperfect Foods in San Jose, Calif., became a member of the negotiating committee after drivers voted to unionize. Cherri Murphy is a Lyft driver and lead organizer at Gig Workers Rising. Tanzil Chowdhury, a graduate student researcher at the University of California, is part of one of the largest union drives in recent U.S. history. Qadirah Bethel, a certified nursing assistant in Daytona Beach, Fla., is a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.

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