People hold placards during a protest in support of Amazon and Starbucks workers in New York City on Nov. 26, 2021. (Photo by Yuki IWAMURA / AFP) (Photo by YUKI IWAMURA/AFP via Getty Images)

Workers’ newfound leverage and organizing momentum only seems to grow month by month. Kellogg’s and John Deere workers went on strike late last year. Starbucks workers in Buffalo have ushered in an organizing domino effect at the coffee corporation. COVID-19 has inspired sickouts and walkouts among the rank-and-file. It’s a perpetual Striketober

But beyond the victorious headlines is a legion of workers who aren’t officially unionized, yet are building solidarity and pressuring their bosses for better pay, benefits, and respect in their own ways. Their efforts to form a union are littered with hurdles that keep union rates half as high as about four decades ago and it has been declining since the late 1950s

More than half a dozen workers, organizers, or both across the country told Prism about the direct and indirect barriers they face in their organizing efforts keeping their workplaces non-union. Some face blatant union busting. Others are fearful of retaliation or getting fired—both illegal, yet resource intensive to enforce. They also see an overall culture in the U.S. of a quit-and-get-out mentality when it comes to low-paying jobs.

“People really don’t see how talking to their coworkers and meeting and going toe-to-toe with their boss is going to change stuff,” said Molly Deis, 31, who was among non-union workers laid off from an arts museum on the West coast in August 2020. The layoffs represented another blow to at least two years of union whispering and other actions among ticket takers. Organizing seemed consistently sidelined by high turnover, siloed departments, and a loss of hope.

“You’re often almost doing it from scratch,” Deis said. “Someone had that fire in them that they could change something and you have to give that to everybody else. That’s some tough emotional labor that [is] the elephant in the room.” Even small wins—like getting floor staff to wear pronoun pins in support of and respect for trans and nonbinary workers—were overshadowed by barriers to signing authorization cards. 

Deis, now a Los Angeles-based library employee and organizer with the Industrial Workers of the World, said turnover crushes the relationship-building needed to organize, especially among the most low-paying jobs that could benefit from a collective bargaining agreement. 

“It was a minimum-wage job where a big issue we faced was not really being respected,” Deis said. “You find something else. It was also a job that had very little upward mobility. So if people wanted to be in the museum industry, it became very apparent that was not the job to have; you could not leverage that for something better.”

These barriers, both direct and indirect, exacerbate pay disparities for women and Black and Hispanic workers, for whom collective bargaining helps raise the pay closer to that of white male workers. Union rates differ by industry. The private sector has a 6.3% union membership rate, according to 2020 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For comparison, those statistics show the public sector’s rate is 34.8%, with about one in 10 workers overall who is a union member. Unionization rates are just 2.2% in leisure and hospitality. In retail and education/health services, rates are 4.5% and 8.4%, respectively.

“All of us feel like we are amateurs”

“Generally, the labor movement is much weaker today than it was 50 years ago,” said Joshua Freeman, a retired labor historian at the City University of New York. Prior to World War II, the percent of the labor force in unions was around the same as today. But, Freeman noted, “it was ascending. It’s not so clear to me that we’re in an ascending moment right now. That remains to be seen.”

Work stoppages were rising prior to the coronavirus pandemic. But even the slight tick upwards in the 2020 union rate—or the percent of wage and salary workers who are union memberswas only due to massive layoffs during the early waves of COVID-19, reducing the overall number of workers. Specifically, the number of union members dropped by over 300,000.

But other workers who aren’t jumping straight into a union effort may not be reflected in such stats. A group of pre-school workers in Virginia decided against pushing for a union early on; some workers were skeptical of union dues, according to one of the employees, who goes by J. 

J—first inspired by teacher strikes in West Virginia—started talking to other workers about their concerns at the nonprofit and sought advice from fellow members of the Roanoke Peoples’ Power Network. “All of us feel like we are amateurs at this,” he said. 

They put their energy behind a petition for a $12 minimum hourly wage, maternity leave, and a hostility-free workplace. About 46 people signed the petition with their names—about one-fifth of the workplace.

In response, the head of the nonprofit held two meetings that J believes were “captive audience” meetings—a union-busting tactic used to bring all the employees in one gathering to share rhetoric aimed to dissuade anyone from supporting a union. The meetings demonized groups including the Roanoke workers’ group, which J saw as specifically anti-union and anti-communist. J says the strategy definitely slowed the organizing effort, seemingly due to a sense of fear or hopelessness.

But that initial petition eventually led to $800 bonuses, an extra paid day off, and free lunches. “I felt like it was concessions that were meant to pacify us,” J said. But “they wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t struggled.”

A former Uniqlo employee in New York City, Jossué Rivera, wanted to gather workers to call out sick to protest repeated flooding conditions as well as toxic management styles. Trans and nonbinary workers were often forced to wear uncomfortable clothing and young women dealt with older managers flirting with them, according to a series of social media posts that Rivera shared. But organizing proved challenging due to young employees’ fear of retaliation.

“Money’s been tight, especially more so with the pandemic,” added Rivera, a 29-year-old from the Bronx. “It’s really hard to band together and do something like that.” Uniqlo did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

“You have to build a movement”

About half of non-union workers are receptive to unionizing, if the opportunity arose, according to one 2017 survey. About 55% of adults in the U.S. say unions have a positive impact on the country, which rises to 68% and 64% among Black and Hispanic adults, respectively, according to Pew Research Center surveys.

The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which has passed in the House of Representatives previously, could make it easier for workers to unionize. The bill would prohibit employers from misclassifying employees as freelancers or managers—two groups excluded from protections under federal labor laws. It would also bar employers from holding captive audience meetings like the one J—the Virginia preschool worker—faced.

But some workers are organizing outside of a traditional union structure with the National Labor Relations Board and existing large-scale unions. That’s what Adam Ryan, a lead organizer with Target Workers Unite, aims to do through the worker collective. Ryan considers the group a union in itself—building power through a worker-led group.

“You have to build a movement that’s organizing regardless of what the law says,” said Ryan, 33, who’s been working at a Target in Christiansburg, Virginia, for four years. “For the longest time, there wasn’t even a right to strike or organize in this country. It was illegal and workers said, ‘Screw it, we’re still going to do this,’ even if they were breaking the law.”

Isabel, a part-time Target employee near Buffalo, New York, said her coworkers are too nervous about retaliation or appearing to betray managers they’re loyal to. She attempted to organize a walk out following a harassment allegation by a teenage worker who was eventually forced to quit at the store after seeking advice from Ryan, but she found it difficult to rally her colleagues.

“It’s been really hard to change anyone’s mind at work about organizing or unionizing,” Isabel, 35, said. “They just feel like they’re going to get in trouble even though I’ve told them we can start organizing.” Target did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Ryan says the pandemic has been a promising window into the future for labor movements. More workers than ever before have been inspired to sign petitions, speak to journalists, and build pressure on management. Last year, the number of people quitting or changing jobs broke a fourth record in November, in part tied to fed up workers trying to find better pay and benefits. But Ryan hopes for something beyond the “Great Resignation,” which he says is a form of “passive resistance.”

“Things have to just objectively get bad enough to where workers finally feel like they can no longer just deal with how things are,” Ryan said. “I think the pandemic has pushed us in that direction.”

Sydney Pereira

Sydney Pereira is a journalist based in Brooklyn. She covers the intersection between social justice and health, labor, and climate change. Her work has been published in Gothamist/WNYC, Newsweek, Patch,...