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Why greater worker participation in organized labor is ‘inevitable’

December 2, 2021, 9:31 AM UTC

Support for unions among Americans is the highest it’s been since 1965, yet the percentage of unionized workers in the private sector is a sliver of what it was in the postwar years. 

A greater shift toward organized labor is “inevitable,” Bloomberg Beta CEO Roy Bahat said Tuesday at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech summit in Half Moon Bay, Calif. 

“Too many people feel like they just can’t win,” he said. 

The COVID-19 pandemic suddenly broadened the category of essential workers to include jobs like grocery clerks and delivery workers. It also revealed how vulnerable many of those people are, said Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). 

The country applauded supermarket baggers and others with seemingly menial jobs. At the same time, many of those workers didn’t have paid sick leave. So, if a worker struggling to get by on low wages had COVID-19 symptoms, that person had to choose between keeping quiet—and endangering those around them—or staying home and perhaps not being able to make ends meet or even losing their job, she said. 

“They treat us as heroes, and they treat us as zeroes” is a common refrain she hears, Henry added.

That dissonance could be forcing a change. Sixty-eight percent of Americans support labor unions, according to a Gallup poll conducted this year. That is the highest level since 1965, when 71% of Americans said they approved of labor unions. Support for organized labor bottomed out at 48% in 2009, but has risen since then, according to Gallup. 

It is not just desperation driving that shift, Bahat and Henry said. Workers seem to increasingly want greater say in how the companies they work for are run, Bahat noted, pointing to the tech sector. 

In 2018, more than 20,000 Google employees and contractors walked out of the tech giant’s offices to protest sexual harassment, misconduct, lack of transparency, and a non-inclusive workplace culture. The following year, workers at Google, Amazon, and Microsoft walked out of work as part of a global climate protest

A walkout in other industries is simply called a strike, but not in the tech sector. Nonetheless, tech workers are organizing, even if they aren’t unionizing yet, Bahat said. 

That is changing, though. At Google’s parent company, the Alphabet Workers Union is pushing for traditional aims of organized labor, such as better working conditions and improved wages. It also wants workers to have a say in major business decisions with significant social, political, and other ramifications.

Perks, yes. But not dialogue

The tech sector is known for its worker-friendly offices, with perks like free food and unlimited time off. 

“You want bagels, we give you bagels,” Bahat said.

But listening to workers stops at the door to the C-suite, he added. Even progressive executives revert to antagonistic mindsets when they sit down at a table across from labor representatives. The private sector has to jettison that now-antiquated mode of thinking and adopt tradecraft to work with workers, not wage war, he said. 

Organized labor isn’t just about better wages. It’s about respect and sharing power, he noted, pointing to the New York Times, where workers choose which health benefits are offered.

Decades of union busting through outsourcing, offshoring, and other methods has made many in the labor movement wary of change, Henry said. Unions have to come to the table to partner with companies to drive change and innovation. 

The question now is, “How do we use collective [bargaining] agreements to catalyze change,” she said.

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