It’s the 21st century. We are supposed to be living in an America that has outgrown its old ways of social injustice, wealth inequality and overall corruption.
But sadly, this is not the reality of the situation. I try to keep my hopes up, but when I look at the outrageous wealth inequality between the working class and the companies that exploit them, I lose that hope.
Well, at least for a little bit — but then I remember the monologues and debates my grandpa used to have with my parents back when we would visit him.
He was born in 1933, grew up during WWII and served in the Korean War. Afterward, he worked at a local soybean oil plant in my hometown of Decatur, Indiana, until retirement. During his time as a worker, he was one of the early members of the labor union that formed in my hometown.
Whenever we would visit, he would always preach about the importance of labor unions and how it kept the balance between the workers and the higher-ups.
Back then, I didn’t really care what he was talking about. I was a 10-year-old trying to play Pokémon — why would I care about the state of the workforce?
But now, his voice reverberates in my head when I see the current situation of our working environment today.
Labor unions need to make a comeback. They haven’t completely disappeared, but they are just a shell of what they used to be. Back in the 1950s, about one-third of private workers were associated with a labor union. In 1983, only 20% were in unions —, a pretty drastic fall from 30 years prior. And today, union membership stands at only 10.1%.
Looking at these numbers, it’s ironic when you hear someone say we are in the “Progressive Era,” especially when you realize that as of 2021, Apple and Amazon contain more wealth than 90% of the world’s countries, according to a study done by Clario Tech. Amazon is the employer for more than 1.5 million workers, yet the labor unions in this company aren’t strong at all.
Many workers for Amazon are subjugated to harmful and dangerous working conditions. The United States Department of Labor issued citations to six different warehouses across the country in 2022.
For instance, Amazon workers were prone to back injuries from lifting heavy boxes at awkward angles and positions. These citations don’t include the horror stories of the 14-hour shifts for delivery drivers and the absence of bathroom breaks, too.
Sadly, Amazon isn’t the only company to have these issues with their workers. A similar situation happened with Starbucks as well. Starting around the pandemic, many Starbucks workers began attempts at unionizing within the company. Workers began to draft proposals for organizing rights and non-discrimination rules within the workspace.
Instead of reasoning and cooperating with its workers, Starbucks began to fire workers who were known to organize and permanently closed stores that supported the unionization. The CEO was brought to the Senate in March 2023 to testify over union violations.
Both the Starbucks and Amazon situations both highlight the increasing demand for unionization across the country. A 2017 Economic Policy Institue survey revealed that around 48% of workers not currently with a union wish to be represented by a labor union.
A presence and resurgence of labor unions would allow for workers to bargain for better wages and better hours rather than being trapped under the thumb of corporate America and put into hazardous working conditions.
Labor unions aren’t what they were — that’s a fact. But there is still hope. It is up to our generation to bring back the presence and importance of labor unions to give back power to workers. We can fix the poorly designed labor laws in our country. And we can help give laborers and workers their voice back.
Nick Moser (he/him) is a senior majoring in English and minoring in political science and film production.