Listen to an audio version of this story

For more audio from The Walrus, subscribe to AMI-audio podcasts on iTunes.

In April, Amazon employees in Bessemer, Alabama, held a vote on forming the company’s first union. They landed on no. No, despite labour violations, alarming rates of workplace injuries, and unrelenting surveillance. Amazon’s reputation as an employer is questionable at best: its “time off task” system tracks the time, down to the second, employees spend away from their primary duties. TOT may be due to walking to another area of the warehouse, a phone call, a washroom break—anything that pauses processing. The monitoring has resulted in terminations. There are stories of workers, in a bid to keep their jobs, urinating in bottles. The union drive still fell short.

In its fight to defeat the vote, Amazon left nothing to chance. According to multiple accounts, the company blitzed employees with anti-union text messages and leaflets. It plastered warehouse and bathrooms stalls with warnings. It set up a now defunct website urging workers to “do it without dues.” Amazon also allegedly hired off-duty police officers to patrol the warehouse for union canvassers. All the while, the company touted its above-average pay—$15 (US) an hour, more than double the federal minimum wage.

It worked. In fact, American companies have gotten very good at fighting union drives, which might be one reason for the dropping membership numbers. In the mid-twentieth century, one in three US workers were union members. By 2020, it was down to about one in ten. US employers spend almost $340 million (US) every year hiring “union avoidance advisers,” according to the Economic Policy Institute. Businesses don’t seem to have any hesitation dismissing union-supporting employees, with some factoring labour law fines into their budgets. Accordingly, public attitudes on unions at times soured. In a 2012 Atlantic piece featuring reader opinions, such coalitions were seen as “political” and “stuck in time.”

While the union fight at the Bessemer warehouse ultimately failed, it dominated public conversation for weeks. The New York Times suggested that it was a much-needed “temperature check” for both Amazon’s workplace practices and the state of unions. Vox described the campaign as “historic” and said the vote could “reshape the company’s labor practices—and maybe the future of warehouse work in America as well.” The reporting helped highlight what unions are for and how they help. Had it been successful, a union would have demanded fairer conditions for Amazon employees, including a slower work pace and less monitoring. It might also have led to more staffing to keep up the intense shipping rates. Amazon employees rejected these ideas, it’s true, but the broader defence of unions resonated deeply a year after hundreds of thousands providing services deemed “essential” worked without protections for their health—equipment, sick leave, or assurance of employment.

The pandemic, by exposing how deeply worker power has eroded, appears to have altered opinions on unions. According to Gallup, union approval was at its lowest in 2009, sinking to 48 percent. But a new Gallup poll estimates that, in 2020, 65 percent of Americans approve of labour protections. Joe Biden has presented himself as “the most pro-union president,” and in March, Democrats passed the Protecting Right to Organize Act, a bill that establishes penalties for anti-union tactics that violate workers’ rights. (At the time of writing, the act is stuck in the Senate).

Here in Canada, the pandemic also saw unions form in noteworthy outposts: Ripley’s Aquarium, a Starbucks in Victoria, and an Indigo in Mississauga, which set off union drives at other Indigo locations. Notably, interest seems to have surged in sectors where workers have traditionally been underprotected. Since last March, the Hospital Employees’ Union in BC has organized in thirteen long-term care homes.

Recent years have been compared to those leading up to the Great Depression, a period also marked by extreme wealth disparity and unrelenting corporate power. The pandemic has made these issues impossible to ignore. David J. Doorey, an associate professor of employment and labour law at York University, says such cultural “traumatic shocks” can spark big shifts in worker rights. “It’s possible,” he told me, “that we will look back at COVID-19 as another transformative moment in labour relations when workers realized they are better off acting collectively.”

My grandfather, a lifelong Chrysler plant worker in Windsor, Ontario, took over as president of the United Auto Workers Local 444 in 1977. It was a fraught time for unions. As a UAW president, Frank fought to secure workers’ wages and benefits packages during a time when working conditions in manufacturing were poor, economic inequality and inflation were worsening, layoffs were common, and organizing was often met with threats.

While the challenges that workers face may not have changed much since my grandfather’s day, divisions between workers with rights and those without have become stark. Outside of a union, US front line workers—such as child care providers, service professionals, and transportation workers—are typically paid just above poverty-level wages; a third of these workers are women, and almost half are racialized. During the first months of the pandemic, union members in Canada were half as likely to lose their jobs, with employment down 10 percent for unionized workers versus 21 percent for the un-unionized. It’s no surprise that collective-organizing movements have gained ground with tech workers and gig workers. Hundreds of Google employees have unionized, and food-delivery drivers have mobilized too. For Ontario app workers classified as dependent contractors, unions are a means of wresting a living wage and benefits from corporations. Our pandemic-drawn term essential workers has positioned these workers as heroes, which makes it even more egregious when employers continually undermine their health and safety.

Interestingly, strikes in support of workers’ rights had seen a resurgence leading up to the pandemic. Striking was a common, and successful, negotiation tactic in the past. My grandparents’ family was familiar with this, having grown used to scrimping on food during UAW work stoppages. But such actions, at least in the US, effectively ended soon after 1981, when the Reagan administration fired over 11,000 air-traffic controllers after the federal-union workers walked off the job in pursuit of increased salaries and shorter workweeks. “Almost overnight,” Caleb Crain wrote in The New Yorker in 2019, strikes dropped. “There had been two hundred and eighty-nine large strikes a year, on average, during the 1970s, but there were only eighty-three a year in the 1980s. The yearly rate so far this decade is fourteen.” In the years that followed, unions struggled to adjust to strike-breaking methods, and workers’ job security suffered. Approval of unions declined; they seemed useless, their strikes disruptive.

This shifted in 2019, when labour strikes moved closer to their early 2000s numbers. There were a total of twenty-five strikes that year, with Fight for $15—a movement to raise the minimum wage in the US—organizing across industries and cities. These cross-sector strikes were not usually long-term walk offs; they were often brief and had a strategic purpose to draw media attention. Still, the COVID-19 crisis proved catalyzing, with many non-union workers spontaneously walking off the job to join strikes and protests, often coordinating via WhatsApp or viral calls to action. “The urgency and desperation we’ve heard from workers,” a US health care union organizer told NPR in January, “is at a pitch I haven’t experienced before in twenty years of this work.”

I often saw pride in my family around unionizing; there were moral principles embedded in activism, a sense of fairness being sought. Today, union officials admit that organized labour is not a panacea, but it does play a key role in promoting the public good. Union members in the US have been shown to be as much as 10 percent more likely to vote in elections; importantly, unions boost the voter turnout in low- and middle-income individuals. Non-union workers also benefit from a strong union presence. Unions, for example, tend to be progressively engaged—in 2020, the Public Service Alliance of Canada supported a class action lawsuit to address systemic discrimination in the public sector. And, according to the Economic Policy Institute, strong unions set industry standards for wages and benefits that help all workers, often by pushing non-union employers to raise wages to stay competitive. Union effects also extend beyond the labour market. One US study found health care facilities with registered-nurses unions have better patient outcomes.

In the past, work disasters like factory fires, bridge collapses, and mine cave-ins galvanized collective action. COVID-19 has been no different. During the pandemic, unionized workers were able to negotiate paid sick times, better pay, furlough terms, and even enhanced protective measures. In fact, studies show that unions are more likely to insist on inspections that can detect and remedy health or safety violations—crucial at a time when many employers have failed to provide essential workers with enough gloves and masks. “Unionized employers are far more likely to comply with protective standards,” says Doorey. “It shouldn’t be surprising that workers look favourably on the prospect of joining a union in times of elevated risk.”

It’s too soon to tell whether the momentum will last. American unions were, and continue to be, organized firm by firm, rather than industry by industry, so unionizing efforts require workers to win union elections one work site at a time. Within Canada, the public sector workforce remains reliably unionized, and this rate even slightly increased in 2020, hitting over 77 percent. But the rate remains low in the private sector, at just under 16 percent. This may be partly attributed to labour regulation, in which workers’ rights are increasingly guaranteed by the province rather than by negotiations through unions.

But, for the moment, within the larger context of wealth disparity and wage stagnation, it appears many workers in the United States and Canada are turning to unions for ideas to shape their own recovery. They are coming to understand what my grandfather—who sat long hours at an often contentious bargaining table—already knew: unions work.

Allison LaSorda
Allison LaSorda's writing has recently appeared in Southern Humanities Review, Hazlitt, and the Globe and Mail.