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Unions have enthusiasm, media spotlight. But membership numbers lag

Alabama coal miners rally at a local ballpark in Brookwood, Alabama. They've been on strike against Warrior Met Coal since April 1.
Stephan Bisaha
/
Gulf States Newsroom
Alabama coal miners rally at a local ballpark in Brookwood, Alabama. They've been on strike against Warrior Met Coal since April 1.

Glance at the numbers and the state of American unions looks bleak.

Just 10.3% of American workers were union members last year, tied with 2019 for the lowest number on record. Membership has been dropping for decades.

Yet if you read the headlines, that future appears brighter.

Starbucks workers formed their first union in the U.S. last December. Strikes at John Deere and Kellogg's ended with better worker contracts. Last November had twice as many active strikes as the summer months. Approval of unions has reached a 56-year-high.

A tight labor market has given workers more leverage, while attempts to unionize some of the most recognizable American brands like Amazon have brought national attention to unions.

It would be too much to call it a union resurgence. But labor supporters see the beginning of an emboldened labor movement — and an end to the long decline of union clout.

"There are things happening now that we have not really seen in the labor movement in generations," said Cedric de Leon, director of the labor center at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. "I really believe that we're on the verge of another upsurge."

Cheri Goodwin helps organize the United Mine Workers of America pantry for striking workers in Brookwood, Alabama.
Stephan Bisaha / Gulf States Newsroom
/
Gulf States Newsroom
Cheri Goodwin helps organize the United Mine Workers of America pantry for striking workers in Brookwood, Ala.

Unions uniting

Before her coal miner husband went on strike against Warrior Met Coal, Cheri Goodwin never really paid attention to labor issues.

Now, she's planning on volunteering at other strikes across the country.

"When this is over, if there's other strikes, we're heading out to help them," Goodwin said. " 'Cause this is a hard fight and we're not done with this."

Last April, about 1,100 coal miners in Brookwood, Ala., went on strike against Warrior Met Coal, which specializes in coal used to make steel. February will mark the 11th month of the strike.

In 2016, steel prices were at one of their lowest points since the Great Recession. That led to the owner of the local mines, Walter Energy, declaring bankruptcy. Warrior Met Coal took over and told the workers they would need to accept a cut in pay and benefits to keep the mines open, with plans to revisit the contract after five years. The miners agreed.

After those five years, steel prices were much higher. But Warrior Met Coal's new offer would not make up for what workers lost. Rather than accept that, the miners walked off the job.

Miner Jeffrey Fleenor says they're like a lot of workers across the country – fed up.

"People's wages and benefits and stuff have slowly eroded, while profit margins of companies have got higher and higher," he says. "They're tired of having to work their lives away and not being able to enjoy them because you're having to work all the time."

The frustration has led to solidarity, according to some labor experts, as high-profile strikes and union campaigns have connected labor groups across the country.

After a strike at four Kellogg's Co. breakfast cereal plants ended in a new contract, the union representing those workers donated part of their strike fund to the Warrior Met Coal strikers. Other unions and activists have been sending goods and cash, used to write checks for the miners and resupply the union's pantry.

Cheri Goodwin and former miners load up supplies from the union's pantry to bring to the United Mine Workers of America rally.
Stephan Bisaha / Gulf States Newsroom
/
Gulf States Newsroom
Cheri Goodwin and former miners load up supplies from the union's pantry to bring to the United Mine Workers of America rally.

"We would have never made this pantry last this long if it weren't for all the support," Goodwin said. "Every single time we get anything, it is like, 'They don't even know us. But they know what we're fighting for.' "

At least a few striking miners are already involved in another labor fight — the one at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala. Braxton Wright says he's one of at least six miners who took a job there to cover bills.

He initially applied as a joke. Surely Amazon, with its strong anti-union stance, wouldn't hire a man who's been on both the news and social media praising a union just a 30 minute drive away. But he began working at the warehouse on Sept. 4.

"I started pushing for the union and talking about the union from Day One," Wright said. "Now I think some of them kind of regret hiring me."

Early last year, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union tried to unionize the Amazon warehouse. Celebrities like Danny Glover and politicians like Bernie Sanders came to Bessemer to support the effort.

Despite the national and international headlines, workers voted more than 2 to 1 against unionizing. But a federal labor official ruled that Amazon's anti-union tactics tainted the vote. Ballots for a new mail-in election will go out next Friday and be counted on March 28 – one day short of a full year since the end of the first vote.

Amazon warehouses are known for a high turnover rate – roughly 150% a year, according to The New York Times. Wright says whether at a warehouse or a mine, workers want the same things — a good-paying job they can stay at.

"Not just a job, but turn it into a career," Wright said. "Make it something where you can stay and retire. Not just jump from door to door."

'The Future Is Open'

While workers may be excited, that's yet to translate into more elections to join unions, according to data from the National Labor Relations Board.

Labor experts say unions clearly need to pick up more election wins and step up their organizing efforts. Victories at big names like Starbucks do a lot to galvanize activists and lead to more stores attempting to unionize.

Still, halting and reversing decades of union declines takes more than organizing store by store.

"You can't really organize yourself out of that kind of hole on a workplace-by-workplace basis," John Logan, director of labor and employment studies at San Francisco State University, said. "To stand in the same place, unions have to be recruiting several hundred thousand new members per year."

Labor advocates say unions need a large national movement. They point to the 1930s as an example. Unions started the decade in decline, dropping to 3 million members from 5 million in the early 1920s. But by the end of the decade, unions were booming.

Much of that came from the pro-union Roosevelt administration and the 1935 National Labor Relations Act. But large strikes and widespread public support helped lift unions to one of their strongest points in the country's history.

Labor professors believe the ingredients for another labor revival to happen again are there – it's now up to unions to capitalize on them.

"These are dark times," Stuart Eimer, co-chair of the department of sociology at Widener University, said. "But the future is open."

The French and German public broadcasting company ARTE contributed to this story.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Stephan Bisaha is a former NPR Kroc Fellow. Along with producing Weekend Edition, Stephan has reported on national stories for Morning Edition and All Things Considered, as well as other NPR programs. He provided data analysis for an investigation into the Department of Veteran Affairs and reported on topics ranging from Emojis to mattresses.