After months of organizing from the Congressional Workers Union, the House of Representatives voted 217-202 last week to recognize congressional workers’ right to unionize. The vote fell on party lines, with every Republican in the House opposing the measure. This partisan split, coupled with Biden-era policies, underscore the growing political momentum and enduring divisiveness of unionization in the United States.
The union debate is certainly not limited to D.C.; in recent months behemoth companies like Amazon and Starbucks have faced a rising mobilization of unions. In fact, workers at over 250 Starbucks locations have filed petitions for union elections, accumulating 50 union wins across the country. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the government body responsible for issuing the petitions, recently reported that fillings had increased 57% in the first six months of fiscal year 2022.
However, this uptick may only represent a wave of high-profile outliers, rather than a sustained movement. Actual union membership in the United States remains near historic lows. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 6.1% of private sector workers belonged to a union in 2021 – still five times less than public sector workers, 34% of which are union members.
Overall union membership in the United States has been in decline since the 1950s, when nearly one-third of American workers belonged to a union. The organized labor movement first saw substantial growth in the 1930s amidst the Great Depression and a favorable political environment.
President Biden has repeatedly promised to be “the most pro-union president in American history.” Most notably, his administration shifted the political makeup of the NLRB to a Democrat-appointed, pro-union majority. This could prove consequential since the NLRB, which enforces U.S. labor laws as they relate to unions, has the power to reverse or modify precedent, such as the standard for determining independent contractor status.
Independent contractor status has been a particularly contentious issue for the trucking industry since it could affect the classification of many owner-operators. Last May, during the Biden presidency, the Department of Labor withdrew a Trump-era rule that was set to favor independent contractor status. This issue, like unions, has the potential to drastically alter the business between employers and employees.
However, whether unions make a comeback or not, there has already been an evident post-COVID shift in the employer-employee relationship. The Great Resignation has entered its second year, with a record 4.5 million Americans leaving their jobs in March 2022, despite rising inflation and warnings of a coming recession.
With midterm elections approaching, the recent headline-grabbing union efforts coupled with the decision by House Democrats to codify its staffers’ right to unionize may cause pro-union policymakers to view this issue as politically advantageous ground for an election-year fight. Voters and businesses alike will need to keep a watchful eye as this issue unfolds with the potential to shape employer-employee practices across industries and particularly within trucking.