By: Epiphanie Couture

The pandemic continues to exacerbate wealth inequality in the United States. Ten of the world’s richest billionaires have doubled their wealth since 2020, nine of whom are American. [1] Conversely, 25% of U.S. adults say that someone in their household lost their job as a result of the pandemic. [2] Among those who did not lose their job, 32% said someone in their household experienced a pay cut, and 60% of those affected are still earning less than they were pre-COVID. [3] Even before 2020, working Americans undeniably felt the effects of inadequate pay. In 2018, the income from a full-time, minimum wage job would not be enough to cover the cost of living in any state. [4] The long-felt need for a living wage, benefits, and bargaining power could, optimistically, be coming to a head soon. As the United States rockily transitions out of pandemic times, many industries face a worker shortage. The effects of the pandemic have emboldened many Americans to resign from their jobs and, it seems, are beginning to revitalize workers’ interest in unionization.

In 1935, Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), amidst nationwide general strikes and employers’ attempts to undermine organization efforts. [5] The NLRA guaranteed workers “the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining.” [6] The act also protected workers’ rights not to engage in union efforts. [7] However, throughout the rest of the 20th century, employers adapted to the requirements under NLRA, and their efforts to weaken employee organization became more covert. [8] The union-busting consulting industry boomed, as representatives advised employers on how to take advantage of bureaucratic weaknesses and suppress unionization legally. [9] In addition to hiring union-busting consultants, there are a few common ways that employers suppress organization. Some of these tactics include disseminating anti-union literature, recruiting anti-union employees in astroturf campaigns (fake grassroots movements), and making promises without contractual obligation. [10]

Since the ’80s, the United States has seen union membership decline considerably. [11] In 1983, 20.1% of employees belonged to a union, whereas in 2020, only a mere 10.8% were involved in unionization. [12] This is in spite of the fact that approval of labor unions is at its highest since 1965: 68% of Americans support labor unions. [13] Further demonstrative of American support for organized labor was the election of Joe Biden to the presidency in 2020. President Biden notably said while campaigning that he would be “the most pro-union President . . . in American history.” [14] Along with many of Biden’s campaign promises, however, the key piece of proposed legislation for unions seems poised to languish in the Senate. The Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act) is currently short of the thirteen votes that are necessary to overcome the filibuster. (politico). Conspicuously among those who have yet to sign onto the PRO Act are Arizona Senators Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema. [15]

Regardless of the PRO Act’s likely doom, American workers have begun to take things into their own hands. Employees of many large companies are organizing to exercise their collective power in negotiating better terms of employment. In October of last year, 10,000 Deere & Co. employees belonging to the United Auto Workers labor union went on strike. [16] The strikers prevailed in mid-November, as they negotiated a contract stipulating immediate 10% raises and better health insurance coverage for new employees, among other things. [17] More recently, over 50 Starbucks locations have filed for union elections with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). [18] The rapid spread of Starbucks’s unionization campaign is important: NLRB elections are happening too quickly for Starbucks to undermine employees’ efforts. [19] The foodservice industry is one that is typically resistant to unionization efforts because of its high turnover, which makes Starbucks’s organization even more remarkable. [20]

The state of labor in the U.S. is untenable. As inflation and the lack of regulation continue to raise the prices of housing, healthcare, and other necessities while wages stagnate, it seems the country must inevitably reach a breaking point. The pandemic has been an upset to business as usual that is forcing working Americans to reevaluate their career decisions and their worth as the foundation of the country. Although only in its beginning phases, the growing unionization movements in the country are auspicious of a fairer balance of power in American labor.

[1] https://www.cbsnews.com/news/billionaires-double-wealth-covid-pandemic/

[2] https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2020/09/24/economic-fallout-from-covid-19-continues-to-hit-lower-income-americans-the-hardest/

[3] Id.

[4] https://livingwage.mit.edu/articles/31-bare-facts-about-the-living-wage-in-america-2017-2018

[5] https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=false&doc=67

[6] https://www.nlrb.gov/guidance/key-reference-materials/national-labor-relations-act

[7] https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=false&doc=67

[8] https://guide.unitworkers.com/a-brief-history-of-union-busting/

[9] Id.

[10] https://www.laborlab.us/5_common_union_busting_tactics

[11] https://guide.unitworkers.com/a-brief-history-of-union-busting/

[12] https://usafacts.org/articles/labor-union-membership/#:~:text=The%20union%20membership%20rate%20is,slightly%20to%206.3%25%20in%202020.&text=Public%20sector%20union%20membership%20increased,1.2%20percentage%20points%20from%202019.


Epiphanie is a 2L at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. Her legal interests center around post-conviction work, public defense, and prison abolition. In her time outside of law school, she enjoys hiking with her Goldendoodle, Charley, writing fiction, and watching A24 films.