color photo of an outdoor protest in favor of unions. a person stands with their back facing the camera holding up a white paper sign in one hand that reads "the union makes us strong"
Philadelphia's Sanitation workers and allies of the union rallied June 9, 2020, in Love Park to demand Mayor Jim Kenney keep promises made to the Sanitation Workers Union to provide personal protective gear and hazard pay after dozens of sanitation workers contracted COVID-19 in Philadelphia. (Photo by Cory Clark/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Unionization efforts skyrocketed in 2022, driven by workers seeking union elections at places like Starbucks and Amazon and bolstered by a record level of public support for unions. Federal labor officials also increased enforcement of laws protecting the right to unionize, increasingly calling out companies for union-busting and retaliation against organizers. Workers voted to unionize in 72% of elections in 2022, compared to 61% in 2021, showing that workers are realizing unionization can result in significant financial gains, improvement in workplace culture, and other tangible benefits that are difficult to attain otherwise. 

Workers represented by labor unions receive significantly more pay than most non-union employees. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that non-union workers earn 85 cents for every dollar a unionized worker earns. Unionized workers are also more likely to receive health insurance, with more than 9 in 10 receiving employer-provided health insurance compared to only 68% of non-union workers. Through “just cause” provisions, which mandate that employees can only be fired for a specific, fair cause, belonging to a labor union reduces the possibility of getting fired for discriminatory reasons.

While union efforts at corporate giants have gained the most national attention, labor organizing is also happening in businesses less accustomed to unionization, including small restaurants, the video game industry, museums, newsrooms, theaters, the arts, and nonprofit organizations. These unions are on the front lines of developing new ways of operating to bring new groups of workers into organized labor. 

Unionizing a small restaurant chain

Before voting to unionize, workers at Burgerville, a fast food restaurant chain in the Pacific Northwest, faced working conditions similar to those of many food service industry jobs. With low wages, poor benefits, and hours that were difficult to come by, workers decided that organizing could solve some of the problems they faced. 

In 2021, Burgerville became the first fast food worker union to be protected by a collective bargaining agreement (CBA). The deal mandated that employers provide worker schedules for three months in advance, raise starting wages from $14.25 to $15 an hour, and offer employees paid vacation and parental leave. In addition, the union negotiated for the end of at-will employment, requiring employers to show just cause for the dismissal of an employee. 

“As a result of just cause, the threshold to discipline workers has increased, and the ability of management to dismiss workers or retaliate against workers has been massively diminished as a result,” said Mark Medina, a former Burgerville employee and current staff organizer for Burgerville Workers Union (BWU).

Burgerville has extended these benefits to non-union shops, and while this is usually a union-busting tactic, it has resulted in material improvements for those non-union workers. Furthermore, Burgerville is a relatively small business, but its significant presence in the Portland region forces other non-union employers to compete to improve their labor practices through similar changes. 

“In our renegotiation, we definitely aim to exploit [any improvement] to its largest effect by trying to get more [low-wage] employers to change workplace conditions for fear of unionization if they don’t,” said Medina.

While they have been able to work with Burgerville management on some issues, Medina said the relationship between the union and management has been tense, with managers still unacclimated to the idea that they have to negotiate with workers. He has been particularly disappointed with management’s poor response to incidents of racial harassment because the business positions itself as progressive. 

“A business is a business, and bosses want 100% control over the workplace and want to have as little accountability as possible,” Medina said. “When it benefits them, [they] look very nice both to the union and to the public, and when it doesn’t benefit them, [they] do whatever they have to behind the scenes to try to engage in all sorts of union-busting.” 

The union has also faced challenges with its parent union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). BWU will soon hold a vote on whether to continue its relationship with the IWW or become a fully independent union. Medina said Burgerville workers have not generally felt supported by IWW, which has rules that can make collective bargaining difficult, such as not allowing its members to adopt CBAs that include no-strike clauses. No-strike clauses prohibit workers from striking while the agreement is in place, and IWW argues that they hurt worker power. At the same time, businesses almost never sign CBAs without no-strike clauses, and IWW’s prohibition prevents many workers that want to agree to a CBA from doing so. 

Workers are increasingly critical of the idea that large labor organizations are the only path to unionization. Large labor organizations like United Auto Workers have recently been embroiled in corruption scandals. Local unions also have to pay large affiliation dues—often the majority of what they earn in union dues from members—to the labor organizations they affiliate with while not receiving a lot of transparency on how those dues are used. Medina said that local, independent labor unions are becoming more common, challenging the hegemony of larger unions and ensuring greater autonomy and control for workers. 

“There are a lot of great major labor unions, and they have resources, and they can lead you in the right direction, but ask questions first about democracy and autonomy,” said Medina. 

Unionizing the video game industry

While customer-facing businesses like Burgerville have a long history of unionization, white collar industries—like video game companies—have only recently seen an uptick in labor organizing. ZeniMax, a subsidiary of Microsoft that owns studios like Bethesda, id Software, and ZeniMax Online, which have made video games like The Elder Scrolls and Dishonored, made history this year when it became the largest union in the American video game industry. Quality assurance workers dealing with low pay, mandatory overtime, and less access to benefits organized in hopes of achieving better working conditions. Microsoft voluntarily recognized the union after a supermajority of workers voted to join. 

The video game industry is often seen as a “passion” profession, and workers have often accused employers of taking advantage of this by imposing abusive working conditions. The “crunch” period, where employees have to work 60-100 hours each week on a project to deploy it on time, is a particularly agonizing experience for programmers. Quality assurance workers often deal with the worst set of working conditions and benefits. 

Zachary Armstrong, a senior quality assurance tester at id Software, said he was pleasantly surprised by how many of his coworkers supported unionization. At first, Armstrong was worried that he was the only one who thought a union was needed and felt trepidation about having difficult conversations, but talking with his colleagues made Armstrong realize that the desire for better working conditions was strong. While the scope of the effort in a large corporate environment was daunting, organizing became easier as it gained steam.

“I started having those conversations … and the dominoes kept falling, and it started getting easier and easier,” said Armstrong. “The hardest part of forming a union, as it turns out, is just being the person who is going to say they’re going to do it.”

Even though ZeniMax has not yet reached the collective bargaining stage, workers have already seen a change in the workplace. Last fall, as organizing conversations bubbled, quality assurance workers received a pay adjustment, which Armstrong attributes to management anxiety about a potential union. Armstrong also believes that unionization resulted in ZeniMax being less impacted by the latest round of layoffs at Microsoft. In addition to ZeniMax, workers at video game companies like Raven Software and Vodeo Games have also unionized. 

Armstrong emphasized that anyone in any profession can start a union, joking that he has now become the “obnoxious friend” who tells anyone who complains to him about work to start a union. 

“We’re very aware of the fact that we are in a space that has not formally unionized very often, so I just hope that we’re not the first and only people to do that,” said Armstrong. “I want us to be an inspiration to everyone else in the video game industry and every other industry that doesn’t see very many unions.”

Unionizing the museum industry

While the museum industry has traditionally eschewed unionization, a wave of recent labor organizing efforts has led to a change, with museums like the Art Institute of Chicago, the Guggenheim, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art voting to unionize. These unions include more traditionally organized employees like retail workers and white-collar staff in the curatorial and education departments who also see a need for workplace improvements. 

“There’s this aura of cultural work and the privilege of working in a museum and the idea that there are so many people that want to work here, and so I think that contributes to our replaceability in [management’s] eyes,” said Sheila Majumdar, an editor in the publishing department at the Art Institute of Chicago and member of the union’s bargaining team. “I think the industry has gotten away with a lot for a long time.”

The union drive at the Art Institute of Chicago started a few months before the pandemic. Majumdar said it came from a general sense of discontent with understaffing, opaqueness around obtaining promotions and raises, and incidents of harassment. Majumdar said that there were incidents where managers refused to learn employees’ pronouns and even threw physical objects at staff. Workers also reported discontent with how the human resources department dealt with concerns.

The union is still negotiating for a contract, but it has already seen results from its existence. All employees are now entitled to Weingarten Rights, which allow unionized employees to have union representation at any meetings where there might be disciplinary action. The museum cannot make unilateral changes to working conditions without consulting the union. Majumdar said that after the museum tried to extend late night hours for retail associates, the associates wrote a petition pushing back against the change. After the union bargaining representative sent a demand to bargain over the changes, the museum cut back the additional days and staff required for late nights.

At the same time, Majumdar said she has been frustrated by the slow pace of the bargaining process, saying that the museum has dragged its feet while negotiating non-economic issues and has communicated disrespectfully with the bargaining unit. While the union expected some pushback, Majumdar has been surprised at the relentlessness of the museum’s opposition to an intentional effort to bargain in good faith. She wishes that museum leadership understood that the workers who voted to unionize just want to make it a better workplace. 

“We believe fully that we are a main ingredient of the museum’s culture and how it works, and we can help them make it better,” said Majumdar. “We are not constrained in the same way by board expectations or whatever outside influences affect leadership’s position. There’s no one else to advocate for us like us, but that’s not bad for the institution.”

Facing old and new challenges to workers rights regardless of industry

The rollback of pandemic assistance programs and work-from-home setups has created an environment where workers are increasingly demanding more from their employers. However, unions still face major hurdles at all stages of the process, from organizing workers to avoiding union-busting to negotiating and enforcing a contract. Corporations like Starbucks have illegally fired workers who have tried to unionize, with federal judges ordering their reinstatement. Undergraduate workers organizing at the University of Oregon have been told that they cannot discuss the union at work or speak to classes about the effort because it constitutes political activity.

Unions are finding that increasing membership and organizing workers are key to staying relevant and generating the pressure to see the change they want. This also means prioritizing equity in the process and union demands. While people of color make up a large share of union membership, they are underrepresented in union leadership, and negotiations with employers can still overlook the needs of disabled, non-white, LGBTQIA+, and other marginalized workers. Some unions are working to improve this by recruiting diverse members to participate in field activities and state conventions and increasing advocacy for racial justice legislation.

For Medina, Armstrong, and Majumdar, unionization offers hope for a better workplace where workers can earn a living without fear of exploitation. It provides the chance to negotiate with employers on equal terms to figure out how to get a job done together with respect for both parties. Regardless of whether one is working in a customer-facing industry, a white-collar profession, a corporate setting, or a small business, unionization starts with the process of building relationships.

“It is one person making a decision and saying that they want to see a change in their workplace and then having that conversation with other people and saying, ‘Do you also want to make a change here?’” said Armstrong. “And then seeing that conversation turn into a movement across your location and across all the locations that are in your company.”

Sravya Tadepalli is a freelance writer based in Oregon. Her writing has been featured in Arlington Magazine, Teaching Tolerance, the Portland Tribune, Oregon Humanities, and the textbook America Now. Sravya...