Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Vivamus convallis sem tellus, vitae egestas felis vestibule ut.

Error message details.

Reuse Permissions

Request permission to republish or redistribute SHRM content and materials.

The Resurgence of Unions: How Strong & How Lasting

The acclaimed longtime labor writer for The New York Times highlights what corporate leaders need to understand about the renewed energy behind the U.S. labor movement.


From the union victories at more than 400 Starbucks stores to last fall’s strike against Detroit’s automakers to the Dartmouth men’s basketball team voting to unionize, there is no mistaking that a resurgence of union activity and activism is underway across the United States.

Even corporations that many people said would never unionize have seen union victories, including at an 8,300-worker Amazon warehouse in New York City and at tech giant Microsoft, where 600 workers at its Activision video game subsidiary have unionized.

The number of workers involved in major strikes last year (459,000) was more than four times the amount in many years before the pandemic. The number of petitions for unionization elections jumped by more than 50% in fiscal 2022 over fiscal 2021, and that number rose again in the most recent fiscal year. 

For years, many workplace experts said that labor was dying—and the overall numbers have been trending downward. Unions, however, are finding renewed energy and support in many sectors. 

A Gallup poll found that the percentage of Americans who approve of unions has climbed to its highest level in more than half a century, to 67% in 2023. That enthusiasm has been particularly strong among younger workers. A poll commissioned by the AFL-CIO found that 88% of Americans under age 30 have a favorable view of unions. That youthful enthusiasm has helped fuel the unionization victories at Starbucks, Amazon, Trader Joe’s, Apple, REI, Barnes & Noble, video game companies, universities, museums, and elsewhere.  

A big question remains: Will today’s union resurgence end labor’s decades-long decline and lead to a meaningful increase in unions’ membership and power? The jury is out. But what is clear is that corporate leaders need to better understand the reasons behind this resurgence. 

High-Profile Gains 

The newly energetic labor movement represents just one of the many economic, political, and social crosscurrents of the past few years, a time of historic upheaval for corporations and workers. The pandemic and a greater sense of activism have led to employees’ growing expectations of a company’s role in society. And even though many corporate leaders—particularly those in HR—feel they have done a lot already for their workers, organizations should understand why many employees want more now and are willing to pursue their desires and demands through labor unions.

There’s no denying that unionization efforts can lead to significant shifts in corporations’ costs, as well as their cultures. For example:

  • UAW: In its six-week strike against Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis, the UAW won raises of 25% over four and a half years and the restoration of cost-of-living adjustments, with starting pay soaring by 68%. That 25% raise was more than all the raises the UAW had won (taken together) from Detroit’s automakers over the previous 20 years.
  • UPS: After threatening a nationwide walkout at UPS, the company’s 340,000 Teamster members won a five-year contract that includes raises of $7.50 an hour. UPS drivers will earn $49 an hour—that comes to $100,000 a year before overtime—and part-time workers will receive an average pay increase of 48%. UPS said the higher wage structure was one reason it laid off 12,000 workers just five months after it signed the contract.
  • Hotels: After a series of on-again, off-again strikes, 10,000 workers at 34 Southern California hotels won raises of $10 an hour over four years, which means pay hikes of 40% to 50%. Wages for hotel housekeepers will rise to $35 an hour.

Labor relations experts say the current trend of successful strikes and big contract gains will inevitably inspire more strikes and new rounds of ambitious contract demands.


Brooklyn, New York, United States. October 25, 2021: Amazon's Staten Island warehouse workers file petition for union election.


A New Face for Unions

During the years I covered labor and workplace matters for The New York Times—from 1995 to 2014—America’s labor leaders talked year after year about their hopes and ambitions for a labor resurgence. But the trend lines suggested they were fighting a losing battle.

In the 1950s, more than one in three American workers belonged to a union. But that dropped to one in six in the 1990s. Today, union participation rates have fallen to just one in 10, with just one in 16 private-sector workers belonging to unions.

Today’s numbers represent the lowest rate of unionization since the 1930s, before President Franklin Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), a landmark law that gave private-sector workers a federally backed right to unionize and bargain collectively. The New Dealers in Congress enacted that law because they were eager to give Depression-battered workers more bargaining power so they could win higher wages to help lift their families out of poverty and, the lawmakers hoped, propel the nation out of the Great Depression.

I’m often asked to speak at universities nowadays, and when I do, I say there is more excitement about unions right now than at any time since the NLRA was passed and the historic Flint sit-down strike succeeded in unionizing General Motors in the 1930s. That strike, along with workers’ dismay about Depression-era wages, inspired a wave of additional sit-down strikes and unionization victories across the U.S.

More recently, the landmark unionization victories at Starbucks and Amazon have sparked conversations well beyond executives and workers of those two companies. Employees at many other workplaces are telling themselves that if workers can succeed against those fiercely anti-union companies, then they may have a good shot at unionizing their employers.

As a result, there is a realistic chance of union membership rising in the coming years after decades of decline. And this is not your grandfather’s or grandmother’s union movement. These are not auto plants in Flint or steel mills in Pittsburgh.

Labor experts point to such union victories as MIT’s grad student workers voting 1,785-912 in favor of unionizing and their counterparts at Caltech voting 799-246 to unionize. At the Art Institute of Chicago, workers voted 142-44 in favor of unionizing, while REI workers in Manhattan embraced unionization in an 88-14 vote. And as many of these workers saw their friends enthusiastically embrace unionization, it has created what sociologists call the contagion effect


Sarah’s Story: A Case Study in Today’s Movement

To better understand what’s driving today’s generation of workers to unionize, consider the story of Sarah Beth Ryther. After getting a Master of Fine Arts from the University of California at Irvine, Ryther moved back to her hometown of St. Paul, Minn., and took a job at a Trader Joe’s supermarket in nearby Minneapolis.

“I heard that Trader Joe’s was a great place to work for people who are creative,” Ryther told me. When she started, she had no intention of being a labor activist; she was intent on writing a novel and had even won a grant to fund the project.

But Ryther quickly grew dismayed about working conditions at Trader Joe’s. “It was immediately the craziest place I ever worked,” she said. There were spats between customers and  employees that sometimes got physical. Managers tolerated a colleague who sexually harassed several employees, including Ryther, but was allowed to keep working at the store.  

To Ryther, it was clear that unionization was the best option to improve things at her store. She spearheaded an organizing drive, and the workers at her Trader Joe’s voted 55-5 to unionize.

Dismay among workers like Ryther has often served as a catalyst in today’s unionization efforts, whether it’s Starbucks workers complaining they’re given too few work hours each week, or Amazon employees complaining about their onerous work quotas, or REI workers saying their schedules change too much from week to week. Among many younger workers—especially those who aren’t white-collar professionals—there is a strong feeling that companies aren’t doing enough to listen to their concerns. —S.G.


Restlessness, Resentment, and Political Tailwinds 

Over the past few years, I’ve asked dozens of workplace experts why we’re seeing a revival of interest in unions. Many point to a growing restlessness and even anger tied to the pandemic.

I first sensed that something was brewing in March 2020 when I was researching an op-ed for The New York Times about how workers were being treated during the pandemic. COVID-19 was beginning to spread rapidly, and many workers were panicked and perplexed about how best to protect themselves. I interviewed Ana Martinez, a McDonald’s worker in San Jose, Calif. She complained that management wasn’t providing workers with masks, gloves, or hand sanitizer. Martinez was so angry that she led a walkout. “We feel underappreciated and undervalued, so my co-workers and I decided to take this step to fight back,” she said. 

Something truly different is going on here, I thought. It’s rare for McDonald’s workers to walk out in protest. Martinez and her co-workers felt management was taking them and their safety for granted at a perilous time, and they started asking a serious question: Why should we risk our lives for a small paycheck? Many workers grew angry that while their companies were doing good business and getting pandemic subsidies, the “essential workers” often weren’t receiving raises or hazard pay.

Political tailwinds are also helping create conditions for a unionization surge. Not only is public approval for unions at its highest level since the 1960s, but in Joe Biden, workers arguably have the most pro-union president in American history. At last year’s UAW strike, Biden became the first sitting president to join a union picket line.

Many workers have also been swayed by the Bernie Sanders effect. The Vermont senator’s pro-union views and crusade against income inequality inspired more interest in unions among young people when he ran for president in 2016 and 2020.

Economic conditions are also fueling the fire. The nation’s unemployment rate has remained at 4% or below since early 2022. That gives workers more confidence to stick their necks out to form a union or to go on strike, because it’s easier for them to find a job if they lose their job.

Moreover, many workers are feeling strong resentment about America’s income inequality. They’re seeing statistics online, for example, that say CEOs at the largest public companies earned 344 times as much as the typical worker in 2022. In 1965, those CEOs earned just 21 times what the typical worker earned.

A High-Stakes Tug-of-War

Several young people who support unions have told me they’ve been surprised, even shocked, by two big obstacles they faced in their efforts to unionize. One was the fierceness of the resistance that Starbucks, Amazon, Trader Joe’s, and many other companies have mounted to stop unionization. That can take the form of hiring union-avoidance consultants or firing pro-union workers. (It is illegal to fire workers for backing a union.) Such resistance has likely slowed unionization at many corporations.

A second, arguably bigger obstacle: Workers at various Starbucks, Amazon, Trader Joe’s, REI, Apple, and Chipotle facilities all first unionized more than 18 months ago. Yet workers at none of those places have reached a first contract. Without a first contract that delivers improvements, many workers inevitably grow discouraged with the idea of unionization. Seeing the difficulties in winning a contract, workers at nonunion shops may feel less tempted to unionize.

While workers say these companies are dragging their feet to delay reaching a contract, the companies insist they’re bargaining in good faith. “There’s essentially nothing under labor law that forces employers to bargain,” said Kate Bronfenbrenner, a labor expert at Cornell University.

Plus, unions can face headwinds in the courts. On June 13, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Starbucks’ favor and made it harder for the National Labor Relations Board to win an injuction—for instance, to reinstate a pro-union worker who was fired—when an employer is accused of acting illegally to defeat unionization efforts.

Tensions between labor and corporate leaders are high these days, and they’re much higher in the United States than in many other countries. Corporate executives in France, Britain, Germany, Italy, Sweden, and Switzerland don’t resent unions the way many American executives do. European executives may not love labor unions, but most see them as legitimate institutions—they often call them social partners.

We’re at a potentially pivotal moment for the U.S. labor movement. With Americans more enthusiastic about unions than in decades, union leaders hope to ride that energy to widespread unionization. For corporate leaders, this moment of growing support for unions should be a call to action—a time to deal with a more restive, more assertive workforce in a way that works for the company and the worker alike.    

Steven Greenhouse

Steven Greenhouse is a well-known labor journalist. He was a New York Times reporter for more than 30 years, including 19 as its leading writer on labor and workplace issues. He has written two books on labor issues and is a frequent speaker on the topic. He is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation.  




Union membership is still at an all-time low level …

Even amid the renewed energy for unionization, the overall percentage of U.S. workers who were members of a union fell in 2023 to 10.0%, continuing a steady decades-long decline. The union rate among public-sector workers (32%) is more than five times higher than the rate in the private sector (6.0%). The highest union rates were among workers in education, training, and library jobs.



… but Americans these days are viewing unions more favorably …

The 67% of Americans who said in 2023 that they approve of labor unions is down slightly from a year earlier but marks the fifth straight year this approval rating has exceeded its multi-decade average of 62%. Union approval plunged to an all-time low of 48% in 2009 following the Great Recession. While approval rates have risen since then, they have not returned to the all-time high of 75% in the 1950s.



… and record numbers of people foresee unions gaining clout.

Fueled by recent organizing victories and a more pro-union stance among younger people, the percentage of Americans who believe that unions will become stronger in the future has jumped over the past five years to 34%, after holding steady near 20% for the previous two decades. In comparison, 36% percent of Americans foresee unions growing weaker in the future, down from 52% a decade ago.