What do the Starbucks in Mount Vernon, the Apple store in Towson Town Center, MOM’s Organic Market in Hampden, the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Maryland Institute College of Art have in common? Employees at each have voted to form or join a union in recent months. They’ve been part of a broader resurgence in organized labor within the United States triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, an improved public perception of unions under President Joe Biden, and a robust jobs market that has clearly put greater power in the hands of workers and less in management’s. The question many are left asking is whether this is a good thing, a bad thing or perhaps a not-yet-determined outcome.
Our assessment? It’s not only a positive development, it’s really overdue.
First, a disclosure: The Baltimore Sun has long employed unionized workers, including one current member of its editorial board. The largest of The Sun’s unions, the Washington-Baltimore News Guild, represents reporters, photographers and certain other non-management newsroom employees. And negotiations over contracts, spelling out wages, benefits and other terms of employment, have sometimes been contentious over the years. Still, on balance, it’s been a mutually beneficial arrangement that has allowed the newspaper to attract and retain top-quality journalists to the benefit of current and past ownership, employees and the community alike.
Yet the very word “union” often evokes strikingly different reactions from Americans. On the political left, people are often conditioned to see organized labor in a positive light, and on the right, they tend to see unions in a negative way. Certainly, one can find evidence to support either conclusion from contracts that have hurt American competitiveness in certain industries to a lack of representation that has caused workers to suffer low wages and hostile work environments. But whatever one may think of them, they have clearly lost clout in recent decades, with the share of the unionized U.S. workforce falling from 20.3% in 1983 to 10.3% last year. Meanwhile, income inequality in this country has worsened — with the rich getting richer but the middle class losing ground to the point where the gap in the U.S. between the wealthy and the non-wealthy is now the worst among the G-7 countries.
Such an inequity may be seen as no big deal to those who are wealthy, but it undergirds many of the nation’s biggest problems including inadequate health care and housing, poor educational outcomes, discrimination, and violent crime. Most Americans understand this. A poll conducted earlier this year for the Pew Research Center found 58% of Americans say the reduction in union membership in recent decades has either been somewhat or very bad for the country. And Gallup reports that 68% of us approve of unions, the highest percentage since the 1960s.
Obviously, there will be voices, particularly on the far-right, who will see unions as the bane of existence. It has become, for example, a common talking point for Republicans to complain about public education almost exclusively through the prism of teachers’ unions. Not happy with the curriculum? Blame the National Education Association. Lower test scores? School mask requirements during the pandemic? Ditto and ditto. Yet often this is no more than reflexive politics as the Democrats are aligned with unions and the GOP against them. And has it occurred to conservatives that when unions aren’t in the picture, it frequently falls on government to step in and regulate the workplace? Is that really a more desirable outcome for management? For anyone?
Indeed, it has been painful to listen to executives like Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz complain about unionizing efforts at his coffee shops even as he loses vote after vote across the country. He even claims to be acting in the best interest of “partners,” the term he insists be used to describe employees. It is one thing to talk the talk of being pro-worker, it’s quite another to pay the pay. And with the recent rise in inflation, Americans understand more than ever that the latter is a whole lot more important than the former.
Employees uniting to promote fairness in the workplace — and maybe reduce, even slightly, the gap between the salaries offered a barista versus those of a CEO — is a welcome sign of progress (and fairness).
Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.