The year workers said 'no'
- In April 2021, a record-breaking number of workers quit their jobs — a trend that hasn't let up.
- At the same time, an organizing wave has spread across retailers, such as Starbucks and Amazon.
A year ago, if you'd asked Hope Liepe if she'd be working at a unionized Starbucks, she "would've probably said that was, like, insane and would never happen — especially at Starbucks."
But last month, the store in Ithaca, New York, where the 18-year-old works as a barista joined a wave of Starbucks stores officially voting to unionize.
"I remember that day. We all came together in this big watch party," Liepe said. "Just the excitement and just the joy that you could feel from all of us of having completed something together, and being able to move together to form a better workplace for all of us."
Since then, all three locations in Ithaca have voted to unionize, along with over 50 Starbucks stores nationwide. Apple workers in Atlanta and New York are looking to follow their lead. And the Amazon Labor Union pulled off an upset victory, marking the retail giant's first-ever unionized warehouse.
"We are listening and learning from the partners in these stores as we always do across the country," Starbucks said in a comment to Insider. "From the beginning, we've been clear in our belief that we are better together as partners, without a union between us, and that conviction has not changed."
Liz Shuler, the president of the AFL-CIO, the country's largest labor federation, said the past year has shown "workers in motion."
"Coming out of the pandemic, working people have not only shown their resilience, but they've shown that they are ready to draw a line and demand more," she said.
It's hard to say unionization is at a tipping point. While Gallup found 68% of Americans approve of unions, a high unseen since 1965, actual membership fell yet again in 2021.
But one thing is clear: The culture of work in America changed drastically in the past year. Demand for higher wages, a rise in so-called anti-work attitudes, "slowing up," and a thirst for organizing are just some of the tools workers wielded with mighty force. The year workers said "no" to what they viewed as low wages and poor conditions began last April when Americans walked off the job in an unorganized fashion to the tune of a record 4 million resignations — and it hasn't let up since.
"I think the pace of the change has surprised me," Shuler said. "We always knew the potential was there."
"It's a time where people are finding their voice and ready to stand up and say, 'We're not gonna take it anymore,'" Shuler added. "So whether you're in a union or not, I think workers have been pretty dissatisfied with their jobs — and they're taking action."
Saying 'no' means quitting, unionizing, slowing up, or protesting for more
April 2021 kickstarted a wave of quitting felt around the country.
It was around that time that vaccines started to become widely available, and people who held off on quitting during the thick of the pandemic took the leap. There was also pure discontent: Entering a new wave of the pandemic, workers began to reflect on how they were treated — and for many, it didn't measure up.
"Listen, we can try to come up with a fancy answer on why are people resigning," Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh told Insider. "The bottom line is the pandemic really gave people time to think about where they are in their own personal life, where they are financially with their families and putting food on the table."
A lot of these workers haven't really stopped working. Many seem to be reshuffling, moving into roles that pay better or fit their lifestyle or aspirations.
"Why are people leaving work? People are leaving their jobs because they're not satisfied," Walsh said. They probably want more money, and many workers have succeeded in getting it — but with a whole lot of inflation tacked on.
It turns out, there's an organized way to fight for more money, better benefits, and job security without leaving your job: unionizing.
"I think a lot of people are looking at organizing as an opportunity to collectively support increasing wages, increasing benefits, increasing worker protections and job safety on the job site," Walsh said. Unionized workers in the US make $1,169 in median weekly earnings, while nonunion workers make $975, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said.
But despite Americans signaling that they want higher pay and better working conditions, union membership has been on the decline since a high in 1954, and 2021 was no exception.
"It's a complicated battle because in America, there's this resistance toward labor movements," said Andres Felipe Almeida Gomez, a restaurant worker in New York who's part of the worker advocacy group One Fair Wage. "It's almost considered evil, but now people are kind of waking up."
Signs of "waking up" don't always involve unionizing. Some workers are purposefully decreasing their productivity, known as a "slow up" in pursuit of better work-life balance.
And, there's the third of work stoppages in 2021 that were by nonunionized workers, according to researchers at Cornell University's ILR School — like the nine Burger King workers who all left over understaffing and high temperatures, putting up a sign that said, "We all quit — sorry for the inconvenience."
One such worker hitting the streets sans union is Goma Yonjan Gurung, a nail-salon worker who's involved in a push to pass the Nail Salon Minimum Standards Council Act. She, her nail salon "sisters," and local politicians rallied in Manhattan's Zucotti Park to advocate that employers introduce higher wages and standards and give workers more of a say.
"They have worked very hard in this industry, and they know the struggle," she said through a translator.
Gurung said they were asking for "a very bare minimum," and that nail salon workers were entitled to paid leave and pensions, just like any other worker.
"I've spent half of my life working in this industry, over 25 years. After working that many years, I have nothing when I look back at it," Gurung told Insider. But she was hopeful that nail-salon workers would have "something" in the future. "And not end up like me — like pension, holiday, vacation, and paid sick leave," she added.
The 'Forever Resignation' is here
Employers still hold the power — they're the ones hiring and firing, after all — but with what could be a "Forever Resignation" on their hands, they'll need to step it up to attract workers.
Some white-collar workers would rather quit than return to the office — or won't even entertain a job interview for an in-person job. A November survey from the ADP Research Institute found that 71% of 18- to 24-year-olds said they'd consider looking for another job if they had to return full time. Service workers are turning their backs on the low-paid industry altogether for better pay, benefits, and conditions.
In Wisconsin, where nurses at UW Health have been trying to unionize since 2019, getting a union back would "go a long way toward both recruitment and retention," said Zach Sielaff, a 38-year-old registered nurse in the children's operating room.
On top of all of that, the perception of organized labor has "changed dramatically" over the past year, Shuler said, driven in no small part by a court of public opinion watching the workers organizing.
So what's happened since April 2021? Workers, especially low-wage ones, emerged from a pandemic where, for the most part, they had to fend for themselves when it came to safety and financial stability. When economic recovery came, workers remembered the position they'd been left in — and the sacrifices they'd been forced to make. Now, they had more options.
For some, that was quitting. For others, it was realizing that the people who'd been standing next to them as they struggled to find masks and dealt with abusive customers were fending for themselves, too — and realizing that they could change that together.
"Personally, I think that the labor movement is long overdue for a movement like this," said Laura Garza, a Starbucks partner and union organizer who traveled to the White House. "I think the pandemic really opened everybody's eyes that, 'Hey, we should be working with better conditions, not the conditions that we had been working under, and we deserve a dignity to organize.'"
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