Why union membership is on the rise, expert says: Workforce — and consciousness — growing post-pandemic

The wave of union activity in New Jersey is hard to miss, labor expert Todd Vachon says.

He doesn’t have to look far for examples: Vachon’s own faculty union at Rutgers University has been on strike, as are nurses at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital nearby in New Brunswick and workers at a packaging facility not far away, in the Dayton section of South Brunswick.

Vachon, an assistant professor in the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations and director of LEARN, the Labor Education Action Research Network, said the apparent resurgence of labor activity in the Garden State is matching, and even exceeding, national trends.

And, while the state’s public sector has long had a high unionization rate, particularly in the education and public safety sectors, analysis that his research and education group has done finds union membership in the private sector has been on the upswing since the pandemic.

“A lot of that started with issues of workplace safety, concerns around COVID protocols and (personal protective equipment),” Vachon said. “That led to a lot of workers coming together and collectively making demands of employers. They, in many cases, saw those demands met, and realized that, if they kept coming together and speaking in one voice, they’d make some changes.”

Where researchers note a lot of new labor organizing occurring is in some of the sectors that have had the lowest unionization rates in recent years, such as the service sector and warehousing.

Across the nation, Amazon factory workers, Starbucks baristas, Chipotle chefs and the workforces of a number of other major corporations in these sectors have made headlines for hosting first-ever unionization votes.

“Amid all that, workers in over 600 workplaces voted to form unions just in the first half of 2022, and that was an 80% increase over the previous year,” Vachon said.

There’s some nuance there.

Because the workforce grew at a fast pace following the pandemic, it actually outpaced the growth of the labor movement, Vachon explained. In light of that, the national figures point to a small dip of workers belonging to unions: Falling from 10.3% to 10.1%.

Still, the unionization rate in New Jersey remained higher than the national average. The Garden State now ranks as the sixth-highest in terms of overall unionization. Only Hawaii, New York, Washington, Oregon and Minnesota rank higher.

Vachon said the Garden State is certainly a friendlier environment to labor organizing than other states (bottom-ranked South Carolina, to name one).

“When it comes to protests and other things, you have moral support, knowledge, a historical legacy and resources from other unions already in New Jersey that you wouldn’t get in the southern states,” Vachon said.

Based on what labor researchers refer to as the union wage premium, which compares union workers to those without unions in a particular occupation, workers in unions were earning about 20% more throughout the pandemic years.

“But, when you break it down by demographics, the benefits are even larger for non-white workers,” Vachon said. “Black workers actually see a 25% advantage by having a union in their occupation versus not having a union. Latino workers have an almost 27% advantage.”

He believes that’s reflective of not only of what collective bargaining achieves, but it also points to a history of segregation of workers into certain job categories.

“Part of the reason why you’d see such a bigger gain for workers of color is that they’re overrepresented in already really low-paying jobs,” Vachon said. “The ability to raise the floor on those jobs is greater than it is to raise wages of jobs that already pay well, where there’s a lot more white workers.”

Although the pandemic jump-started this recent upswing of labor activity in New Jersey, surveys suggest young people are going to want more of it.

“There’s a real enthusiasm for unions among young people right now, with about 80% reporting highly favorable opinions of unions” he said. “They’re driving a lot of forward push to organize some of these industries where unions haven’t had a foothold historically.”