A person holds "Vote Union Yes!" signs during a protest in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, Stop Asian Hate, and the unionization of Amazon.com, Inc. fulfillment center workers at Kelly Ingram Park on March 27, 2021 in Birmingham, Alabama. (Photo by Patrick T. FALLON / AFP) (Photo by PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)

The COVID-19 pandemic had a powerful impact on workers and businesses, with a rise in unemployment that has yet to come down to pre-pandemic levels. The shift in some industries from office-based employment to remote work and increasing corporate pressure for the economy to “return to normal” is inspiring a growing number of people to re-evaluate their willingness to tolerate exploitative and often unsafe work environments. While hard data about the results of 2021 unionization efforts won’t be available until later in 2022, there seems to be a clear connection between COVID-19 and unionizing efforts in 2020. Whether that connection was a benefit or barrier for workers’ organizing attempts varied in complicated and sometimes unexpected ways. 

For instance, recent data shows an increase in unionization rates in Minnesota, despite a national decrease in the number of unionized workers across the country. Unionization efforts have popped up across the state at nonprofits, bookstores, museums, and schools. Workers are pointing to the challenges of the pandemic—such as the uncertainty around employment and the ways in which workers get treated—as reasons for their unionization or worker justice efforts.  

In a story published by Prism in December 2021, one front-line worker Ignacia Ambriz discussed how pressures by management and employers are forcing front-line workers to look to unions and advocate for justice. Ambriz is a leader with Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha (CTUL), a worker-led organization dedicated to organizing and educating around worker issues. 

“I don’t control wages, but I want every person who works to make enough money, not just the minimum wage, but enough to pay the mortgage, to pay their bills,” said Ambriz. “I want to keep fighting for better wages for all people because if we don’t fight for it, it will never happen.”

In 2020, the national percentage of unionized workers was 10.8%, .05% higher than 2019, and a slight increase after many years of a steady decline in the number of unionized American workers. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), however, union membership as a whole was down by 428,000 in the private sector, despite union rates increasing. Private-sector union membership increased by .1% in 2020, while public sector membership increased by 1.2%. Additionally, BLS data noted that the biggest increase in union representation was in the “protective service occupations,” such as police and firefighters, as well as with library and educational staff. 

“Unions in the United States and much of the world have been in a defensive posture really since the 1980s,” said Peter Rachleff, executive director of East Side Freedom Library and former professor of history at Macalester College. “This has meant that predominantly blue-collar manufacturing workers have had their lives radically transformed. The percentage of unions in those industries has radically diminished.” 

Rachleff notes that when the pandemic began, workers who had been treated as largely invisible—such as grocery workers, warehouse workers, retail workers, and other workers in public customer-facing roles—suddenly found themselves being hailed as essential. Workers had correspondingly higher expectations around salary, benefits, and working conditions, as well as sharpening criticism about how they were being treated. If workers are really “essential,” shouldn’t they be paid better, respected more, and have a voice in how their services are provided to community members? As the pandemic continues to exacerbate pre-existing inequities and exploitative work conditions, more workers are turning to union organizing to both raise awareness and encourage collective action to enact change within their respective industries. 

“COVID-19 has come at a time when workers in Amxerica and much of the world had, for too long, felt disrespected and have seen this as an opportunity to organize and insist that they be treated with respect,” said Rachleff.  

Why are people unionizing? 

For many, unionizing efforts are about trying to protect themselves in the workplace. Unsafe and inequitable working conditions were a problem before the pandemic increased pressures on workers. At the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits (MCN), whose union campaign launch was incidentally timed with COVID-19, union members were concerned about how their workplace might change under future leadership. 

Amber Davis, an employee with MCN, shared how during her three years at the nonprofit, she and other coworkers noticed what seemed to be an unusually high turnover rate. They began asking themselves why employees were frequently leaving and what they could do to support and take care of each other. The MCN union was successfully organized in 2021 and is represented by the Newspaper and Communications Guild.

“We have to take care of the workers because the workers are doing the work and caring for the communities, and the communities also care for us,” Davis said. “I feel like there’s an energy exchange that might get hurt when we’re not taking care of workers.” 

Other union efforts are being sparked by similar sentiments to Davis’s, with workers wanting to show solidarity with their colleagues. However, Rachleff says that COVID’s impact on unionization efforts is more complicated and uneven, depending on the industry. He pointed to how unionization efforts at hotels and restaurants stumbled as workplaces shut down and workers were laid off in the wake of the pandemic. On the other hand, workers have been spurred to organize more rapidly in areas like health care and education. Unionization attempts have even spread into more niche professions, such as cultural workers, museum workers, workers in the theater and musical industries, and workers at nonprofits.

If workers are really “essential,” shouldn’t they be paid better, respected more, and have a voice in how their services are provided to community members?

Across the Twin Cities, breweries, teachers, museum workers, and others have been inspired by their experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic to unionize, though not all have been successful. The Surly Brewing Union effort failed by one vote in an October 2020 election. Surly Brewing had been temporarily closed by management two days after the intent to unionize was called and, as a result, several people lost their jobs. Organizers with the campaign spoke with local journalists when the union campaign first launched in fall 2020. 

“What pushed us to organize was mostly COVID-related things, re-opening in the middle of the pandemic, a lot of concerns there naturally,” said Natalie Newcomer, a former employee with Surly Brewery, shared on the Radical News Radio Hour, a Twin Cities-based podcast. “But we just felt like safety while at work could have been better, and our pay went down for most of us.” 

Long fights to unionize in the Twin Cities, inspired by the COVID-19 pandemic, are also extending beyond breweries to institutions and nonprofits like the Walker Art Center and Land Stewardship Project (LSP). The Walker Arts Center Worker Union is not currently speaking to the press, but their union was announced in September 2020 and voluntarily recognized in December 2020. According to Instagram posts from the union, their first contract was unanimously approved in October 2021. 

LSP, a local food and land justice-centered nonprofit, also recently announced their union with Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU) Local 12. According to their social media posts, LSP management has “backtracked” on their support of the LSP union, after voluntarily recognizing the LSP union. 

Unions and contract negotiations

Aside from contract unionization, COVID-19 has had a major impact on contract negotiations between employers and union representatives. United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1189 represents meatpacking workers, day care workers, grocery store, and retail workers, amongst other essential worker groups. Jim Gleb, the recently elected president of UFCW 1189, has been managing issues facing workers since the earliest days of the pandemic, specifically related to PPE access and other COVID-19 safety issues. Gleb described the situation for food and commercial workers as “the Wild West,” where workers struggled to figure out ways to keep themselves safe while at their largely customer-facing jobs. 

In retail, the union had to advocate for barriers like plexiglass to keep customers separated from cashiers, masks mandates, hand sanitation accessibility in stores, especially for employees, and sanitizing checkout stands and all store areas. Drastic changes were also needed in meatpacking and food processing, and while those took longer, Gleb was proud those were implemented as well. 

Now as the pandemic moves into its third year, Gleb and other organizers acknowledged how the virus has majorly impacted contract negotiation priorities and the issues facing workers as they face off against employers. The ways that COVID has affected the commercial retail and food processing industries will be front and center during negotiations, especially around issues of worker safety for those putting themselves at constant risk—from the virus, from aggressive customers refusing to follow safety precautions, from the negligence of their employers—to keep others fed. Additionally, the differences between workers who do have a union that can advocate for them and those who don’t have any collective bargaining power have only become more stark over the last two years.

“I think COVID-19 has made people more aware of what you have in your workplace, with and without a union,” said Gleb. “We’re able to make phone calls and get things done and taken care of [for members]. Where in other [non-union] facilities that we’ve got the calls from, nobody’s doing anything for them.” 

For many workers who hadn’t seriously considered unionizing at their workplaces, there’s no “going back to normal” now that the pandemic and the inequities it’s laid bare have proven the advantage of collective bargaining and inspired them to take that plunge.

Ileana Mejia, an employee of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, noted that while unions do offer workers a better chance at increased or living wages and benefits, what collective bargaining can produce for workers can be literally lifesaving, especially in an ongoing global pandemic.  

“Unions have also brought safety and protections to workers, and I think that’s something [important],” Mejia said. “Unionizing is one way to have solidarity, build power, and safety nets in place.”

Cirien Saadeh, PhD is an Arab-American community journalist, community organizer, and college professor teaching Social Justice and Community Organizing at Prescott College. Saadeh believes that journalism...