Unions Seek to Reverse the Elusiveness of Organizing Retail

Since 1980 real wages in retail have fallen by 11% while on-call scheduling, involuntary part-time work, and “clopening” (where workers lock up the store at night and reopen the next morning) have, according to unions, wreaked havoc with workers’ lives. But the retail sector has one of the lowest rates of unionization in the economy – around the 5% mark – resulting with unions that have virtually no influence.

But in 1970s retail had 15% union density. Grocery stores were higher at a staggering 31% in 1983. This begs the question: What went wrong for unions?

When asked this question the typical answer is given, “the general trend towards de-unionization of the U.S. workforce and the hollowing out of the National Labor Relations Act through case law and employer challenges.” But, according to Peter Ikeler, a sociologist at the State University of New York College at Old Westbury and author of the book, Hard Sell: Work and Resistance in Retail Chains, the most important factor in the fall of retail unionism has been employer hostility.

The drumbeat of anti-unionism typically begins as soon as new employees begin their training. New worker orientation at Walmart, the nation’s leading retailer, used to include a video that featured lines like: “The truth is unions are businesses, multimillion-dollar business that make their money by convincing people like you and me to give them a part of our paychecks.” Even smaller, regional chains invest in anti-union propaganda for new hires. According to internal documents provided to In These Times website by an employee of Big Y, the Massachusetts-based grocer warns new hires about signing a union authorization card since the company’s “continued success” would be “jeopardized through third party involvement.”

Unions also share part of the blame, says Ikeler, because they have done a lousy job of keeping workers engaged. In his view, labor unions need to step up their organizing.

Unions need to get back to what unions were in their early New Deal days: more worker-based rather than these large staff-run top-heavy entities that give lots of money to Democratic candidates every few years with relatively little payback.

Ikeler also sees a lot of potential in the worker center model because they give workers a place to go to form communities, talk about work conditions, and plan campaigns. Worker centers also help cultivate a sense of occupational identity in a sector of the economy known for deskilling workers in order to make them more easily replaceable. Per Ikeler, “If workers see themselves as part of an occupational community, they may be more likely to form organizations together and put up collective resistance.” Ikeler continues: “Worker centers cannot replace unions, but the two organization can work together.” They should be able to work together since worker centers are usually owned, funded, and operated by unions.

Matt Austin owns Austin Legal, LLC, a boutique law firm based in Ohio that limits its representation to employers dealing with labor, employment, and OSHA matters. You can call Matt at (614) 285-5342 or email him at Matt@MattAustinLaborLaw.com.