New York City workers are joining labor unions at a rate far higher than their counterparts in other cities — and at 10 times the national average.
The annual State of the Unions report from the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies finds nearly half of the 17,000 workers who’ve joined a labor union in the five boroughs since the start of 2021 are employed by Amazon, where workers at a massive Staten Island fulfillment center became the first in the nation to unionize.
New York City private-sector workers are joining unions at nearly twice the rate as in the next most active city, Seattle, and at five times the rate as in San Francisco or Los Angeles, the study finds.
The successful Amazon organizing drive, bringing union status to 8,325 employees of the JFK8 Fulfillment Center, was hard won.
On Thursday, the National Labor Relations Board handed a victory to the ALU, rejecting Amazon’s objections to the JFK8 election. The board found over the course of the months-long trial that the company did not demonstrate improper meddling from the union or the board itself. The decision paves the way to finally certifying the election results — though Amazon and the union may file objections until Sept. 16.
“Today is a great day for labor,” ALU president Christian Smalls said on Twitter after the announcement. A spokesperson for Amazon, Kelly Nantel, said in a statement: “While we’re still reviewing the decision, we strongly disagree with the conclusion and intend to appeal.”
The lead author of the study cautioned against broader optimism.
“The organizing activity is like a tender flower,” said Ruth Milkman, who chairs the CUNY school’s labor department. “It’s just a beginning and it might not last,” especially if the number of available jobs shrinks and workers lose leverage.
Gerald Bryson — a single father, former Amazon worker and union organizer — knows how tough it is to win a union drive.
Fired after participating in a March 2020 walkout at JFK8, Bryson was thrust into the spotlight, battling his dismissal in court and in the media, and emerging as a key figure in the historic breakthrough union organizing effort at that massive sorting facility.
The union’s profile only grew from there, even as it filed for and lost a second union election on Staten Island. Bryson is now helping lead a high-stakes campaign to organize a third Amazon warehouse, in Albany, where an election is on the horizon for 400 workers.
The Amazon Labor Union, like the Starbucks Workers United campaign, has the hopes and expectations of the American labor movement weighing heavily on its shoulders. Yet speaking from a three-hour Greyhound bus en route to Albany Wednesday afternoon, Bryson was in a great mood.
“We know we started the revolution, or we’re at least at the forefront of it,” Bryson said. “We know that we got a lot of attention on us and what we’re doing. It’s not a burden to carry that, and we’re gonna see this fight through.”
He added: “I’m just proud to lead the way. I believe in what we’re doing.”
The watershed success of the Amazon Labor Union heralded a surge in labor organizing at a time when 71% of the nation approves of labor unions, according to a new Gallup poll — the highest share since 1965. With 8,325 members, theirs is a victory that has helped make New York City the nation’s leading center of organizing activity for the 18 month period studied, from January 2021 through June 2022.
Nevertheless, the share of city residents who are members of unions declined slightly to 18.8%, as those gains were offset by losses elsewhere, leaving the city with 623,000 unionized residents. Private sector penetration remained unchanged at about 12.4%, while public sector penetration fell by almost eight percentage points to 62.2% as the number of workers in government jobs shrank.
The Central Labor Council, the city federation of unions, disagrees with the report’s methodology and conclusions, claiming that it does not account for workers employed in the city who live in its suburbs.
“The conclusions about union density reached in the report are misleading,” Vincent Alvarez, president of the CLC, said in a statement. “Because they’re based on where workers live rather than where they work, they fail to accurately reflect the strength of our city’s unionized workforce — many of whom, from all sectors of the economy, reside in areas outside the five boroughs.”
New York City’s union penetration rate is nearly double the national figure of 10.2%. But the city’s rate has declined significantly from 24% just a decade ago, as the same forces that have sent unionization numbers plunging across the country — the decline of manufacturing, corporate opposition and unfavorable decisions from courts and federal regulators — have played out in the city.
Besides the Staten Island victory from the independent Amazon Labor Union, other unions making inroads to buck the downward trend include United Auto Workers, whose Local 2110 is active in organizing workers at museums and non-profits, and two unions representing media workers, the NewsGuild of New York and the Writers Guild of America.
Engineers and tech workers at The New York Times began discussing how and if to unionize in 2019, but it wasn’t until the following year — fueled by the pandemic and the Tom Cotton op-ed controversy — that momentum among the tech workers grew, said Kathy Zhang, the unit chair at the New York Times Tech Workers Guild. The unit grew to nearly 600 people, and won its election in 2021 by a 404-88 margin.
“It started with a couple of us wondering, How great would it be if we could have the same rights as our colleagues in the newsroom and advertising, who have protections in their contracts like just cause and overtime pay,” said Zhang, an audience manager employed at the Times for seven years.
“The labor movement needs everyone,” she added.
Maida Rosenstein, the recently departed longtime president of United Auto Workers Local 2110, said that as cultural institutions began to expand prior to the pandemic, “staff at museums was still incredibly low paid. Museums relied, and still do rely, very much on precarious labor where people don’t have full-time jobs and don’t have benefits.” Pandemic furloughs only intensified workers’ stress, she added.
Roughly 1,639 workers in New York City joined UAW during the study period. The majority of those workers hailed from cultural institutions, said Rosenstein, including the Whitney Museum, the Tenement Museum, Brooklyn Museum and Film at Lincoln Center.
In June, workers at the Film Forum voted unanimously to join Local 2110, and in February, 187 curators, education specialists and post-doctoral fellows at the American Museum of Natural History voted by an 85 percentage-point margin to join District Council 37.
The burst of union activity in the city has been aided by a labor market where many employers are desperate to hire and workers believe that they can easily find another job if they quit or are fired for union organizing. Whether the upward trend in new union organizing will hold remains to be seen.
“It is just too early to tell where this increased union activity will go, given corporate resistance and the Fed effort to cool the economy and push up unemployment,” said Joshua Freeman, labor historian and emeritus professor of Queens College. “It could prove to be of lasting significance — or not.”