(shotbydave via iStock)

Over the past year, workers around the country have been making headlines for their attempts to unionize. The media industry and Big Tech have seen a surge in the number of workers trying to organize, especially at companies like Amazon, The New York Times, The Atlantic, and Google. When many people think about unions, the stereotypical image of a blue-collar worker doing manual labor often comes to mind. However, with the number of jobs labeled “blue-collar” disappearing, white-collar workers have been stepping up to push for social justice in the workplace. 

Most unionized workers today are educators, steel workers, public service workers, auto workers, and electrical workers. Labor unions advocate for protections that employees wouldn’t normally get on their own. When collective bargaining is done effectively, workers can obtain job security, better working conditions, higher wages, and quality health care. In addition to those benefits, many union contracts offer job stability by requiring that employees can only be terminated for cause. Unions can also negotiate to secure more vacation and sick time for employees, set set salary minimums, raise salary bands, and more. 

“I can’t think of any group that wouldn’t benefit from joining a union,” said Edgar Ndjatou, the executive director of Workplace Fairness, an organization that provides information and resources to help workers learn about their rights. “There’s something very powerful about having a union come in to negotiate on your behalf for better working conditions. A lot of people lost their lives and their livelihoods to fight for that right.”

Even if they don’t realize it, all workers protected under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) have rights. Workers have the right to form or join a union, to negotiate with employers over the terms and conditions for employment, and to be protected from being fired or demoted for attempting to unionize, having union discussions at work, or going on strike. Regardless of the workplace, when employees band together to unionize and fight for their rights, it can change the nature of an industry. 

“Unions raise the collective stake for everyone in the industry in a positive way, especially where there is a high union density,” Ndjatou said. “Places that are not unionized have to raise their standards to meet those of the unionized competitors.” 

But despite the positive effect it can have on employees, unionizing isn’t always easy, and recent court rulings, aggressive anti-union campaigns, old tropes about union corruption, and stereotypes about union workers have made it even more challenging. Though public support for labor unions in general is consistently high, non-stop union-busting efforts over the past few decades have had a significant impact on the state of employment in the U.S., leaving union membership at an all-time low. Last year, 10.8% of the U.S. workforce belonged to a labor union, compared to 35% in the mid-1950s—when union membership was at its highest. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 12% of union members in 2020 were Black—the highest percentage of any other ethnicity.

With union rights constantly being stripped away and companies challenging the right of their employees to unionize at all, many workers now wonder whether they’re eligible to organize, how they might benefit from unionizing, and whether the benefits to unionizing are always worth the setbacks. To set the record straight, some workers’ rights organizers are speaking out to familiarize people with their rights in the workplace and argue that unionizing is almost always a step in the right direction.

Who can and can’t join a union?

Despite common misconceptions, most workers in the private sector, regardless of industry, have the right to unionize. However, only people protected under the National Labor Relations Act have collective bargaining rights that would allow them to negotiate contracts with employers through union representatives. 

There are some significant gaps in which groups are protected by the NLRA. For example, many care workers, who are paid directly by state Medicaid agencies, are unable to join unions because they’re technically state employees. However, there are ongoing efforts to change that. People who work at franchises also have a difficult time unionizing, since workers are typically classified as employees of an individual franchisee, rather than the larger corporation. For gig workers, such as ride-share drivers and food delivery services, there’s the challenge of being considered independent contractors, though there has been an aggressive fight to change that classification. 

“In general, most workers aren’t really independent contractors,” said Adam Shah, the policy director with Jobs with Justice. “An independent contractor is when you have a leak and you call a plumber. In that case, you’re not the plumber’s employer; you’re just hiring them to do a job. People who work for Uber or Lyft or DoorDash aren’t like people you would hire out of the Yellow Pages.”

In 2019, California passed a law to give gig workers the legal standing of employees, but Proposition 22 exempted Uber and Lyft. There are ongoing efforts to overturn this. Last year, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 2257 into law, which removed the limits on companies to hire creative workers, including freelance journalists, photographers, artists, and musicians. However, freelancers are not protected under federal labor laws. Freelancers looking for some of the benefits of a full-time employee have joined unions like the Freelancers Union, which offers health benefits, resources, and advocates for policy change, but they still do not have collective bargaining rights.

Lastly, workplace supervisors, agricultural workers, independent contractors, and public sector employees are not covered under the National Labor Relations Act—although government workers are covered under a different body of law. Notably, those legislative exclusions have inequitable racial and gender impacts: Legislation from the 1930s like the FLSA, the Social Security Act, and the National Labor Relations Act deliberately excluded women and people of color by refusing protections for jobs they were most likely to hold, such as agricultural jobs or domestic work. This discrimination kept unions mostly white and male through the ‘50s and ‘60s. Women and people of color became the most likely groups to organize in the decades after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which made it illegal to discriminate against race or gender in hiring and in union ranks. But despite this increase in labor union diversity, membership has been in a long-term decline ever since due to the quick growth of non-union industries, facility openings and closings, and job expansions and shrinkages.

Recent efforts to discourage unionization

Apart from the question of who’s officially protected by law, employers and workplace circumstances can create barriers that deter workers from unionizing, including retaliation like firing or demoting workers who attempt to organize. 

Recent large-scale efforts by the courts and large companies to discourage collective bargaining have been also successful. In what was referred to as a “union-busting decision,” the Supreme Court last month ruled against union recruiting on California farms—a major setback for farmworkers seeking better working conditions. Then in April, Amazon warehouse workers overwhelmingly voted against unionizing after a multi-million dollar fight by the company to discourage the campaign. The company used COVID-19 social distancing measures to prevent union discussions, flooded its employees with anti-union text messages, held mandatory meetings, created a website to encourage workers to “do it without dues,” and distributed pamphlets. Critics of Amazon’s tactics say they used misinformation to convince workers that unionizing was against their best interest.

“There’s only so much money for unions to counteract misinformation, especially in states where unions are discouraged,” Ndjatou said. “If you don’t want to unionize, then no one should force you. I firmly believe in that. But at the very least I want workers to make an informed decision. If people don’t do the work and their own research, then the negative thoughts about unions multiply.”

Non-unionized workers still have other options to fight for fairness in the workplace if they fail to form a union. Under the NLRA, employees who organize in defense of worker protections are still covered under the “concerted activity” section of the law.

“Even if you lose the union election, don’t be defeated,” Ndjatou said. “If you all form together to protest working conditions, that affords a lot more protections than if you’re just doing it by yourself.”

Closing the racial wealth gap

Despite the history of discrimination, the protections and bargaining rights that labor unions offer employees can be an important step in closing the racial wealth gap and changing racist attitudes. Studies have shown that white union members have a lower racial resentment toward policies that benefit Black Americans. Research has also shown that belonging to a labor union or living in an area where the public holds positive sentiments about labor unions can help lower the risk of poverty. At the individual level, since many union contracts include a standardized wage, it takes the decision away from management about what people can earn, and that can be a major step toward wage equality. 

“One of the reasons equal pay has been such a problem is that companies won’t share with employees what the pay is for everybody, and so you don’t know that Black people are making less than white people and women are making less than men because you have no statistics,” Shah said. “Those statistics are things that the union can request and can negotiate around.”

Belonging to a union can also limit the chances of people getting fired for discriminatory reasons. Intentional race discrimination is difficult to prove in court since the fired employee has to prove that bias played a primary role in their termination. Since many union contracts include language that states that employees can only be fired with cause, being a union member can prevent workers from having to go to court. If a worker is unjustly terminated for any reason, filing a grievance with their union could lead to them being rehired.

“There have been issues of race that union members have had to grapple with, but union members look much less white male than they did before,” Shah said. “Our white privilege society will always have people of color at the lower end of the wage scale, and so as more low-income people unionize, it will increase wages for people of color and women.”

Shah is currently encouraging people to support the Protect the Right to Organize Act, which would expand labor protections for employees and help eliminate many of the obstacles that come with forming or belonging to a union. The bill is currently being pushed by Democrats in Congress, with ongoing attempts to flip some resistant Republicans. Shah understands the hesitancy many people have when it comes to forming a union, but he encourages people seeking equity and bargaining rights in the workplace to do themselves a favor and look into it.

“The benefits of forming a union are so clear and the power and dignity that comes from having a collective voice at work are so important,” Shah said. “When people fight together for their rights, it’s a powerful, powerful thing.” 

Carolyn Copeland is the News Editor at Prism. Her written work can be found in the Washington Post, HuffPost, San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner, Palo Alto Weekly, Daily Kos, Popsugar, The...