You Should Join a Union. Yes, You
Author and journalist Kim Kelly on the power of unions and why you need to join one, now.
By Kim Kelly
American labor activists have become accustomed to wincing whenever a new batch of numbers pertaining to union density or organizing activity drops. The news is seldom good (and often comes as a real kick in the pants). But in July, we were treated to some good news from the National Labor Relations Board, which reported that union representation petitions have increased by 58 percent compared to the same time period in 2021. By May 25 of this year, that number had eclipsed the total amount filed in all of 2021. And while that’s not necessarily the massive leap forward some have hoped for, it’s an encouraging sign of where labor may be headed thanks to the enthusiasm and energy that a new wave of young, diverse organizers have injected into the movement. A recent study of Google trends revealed that searches for “join union” have exploded in the past twelve months, and the latest Gallup poll has revealed that 71% of Americans support unions—the highest point since 1965.
While some may dismiss labor unions as a thing of the past, or assume they only serve blue-collar professions like manufacturing and coal mining, workers in retail, food service, sex work, tech, and white-collar industries are making it quite clear that those old assumptions are stale, out of touch, and just plain wrong. Workers who have the option to organize their workplace and sign a union card should grab hold of it with both hands now, because despite what anti-union billionaires, Republican politicians and corporate union-busters may say, every worker needs a union—and yes, that includes you, no matter what you do or who signs your paycheck.
Are you a longshoreman? Join a union, and take your place in the proud history of labor militancy on the docks. A public defender? Join a union, and build worker power while helping vulnerable people navigate a brutal legal system. A budtender at a cannabis dispensary? Join a union, and get yourself some weed-themed Teamsters swag. A quality assurance employee working on the next Call of Duty game for Activision Blizzard? Join a union, and help organize the video game industry. A photo editor for a glossy magazine? Join a union, and help the Conde Nast Union get recognized. A cashier or stocker at Trader Joes? Join a union, and win better conditions for frontline retail workers. A reproductive health care worker at an abortion clinic? Join a union, and assert your rights as workers and as human beings during a moment when both are under attack. A coal miner? Join a union, and go stand with your siblings in Alabama who have been on the picket line for the past 13 months. A dancer at a Hollywood strip club? You definitely need a union, and Actors Equity will welcome you with open arms and impeccable style.
It’s a great time to join one, too. High-profile worker wins at Amazon and Starbucks have helped usher in a new burst of enthusiasm for labor organizing, and an ongoing wave of strikes, protests, and contested union drives are providing fuel for the fire. The younger generation is taking note, and the vibes they’re bringing to the fight are immaculate. Gen Z for Change, a collective of young progressive activists, have harnessed their considerable social media power to troll anti-union corporations, while popular labor Tiktokers like @allthingslabor and @uniondad break down workers’ rights issues in bite-sized videos. The @UnionDrip Twitter account shouts out fashionable labor leaders both past and present, and one of the most recognizable labor leaders in the country, Amazon Labor Union President Chris Smalls, wore a swagged-out “Eat the Rich” jacket to meet with the President of the United States earlier this year. Unions are cool, and in Smalls’ own words, we’ve been having a #hotlaborsummer.
Summer is over now, though, and the window for a major labor resurgence may be closing. Life isn’t getting any easier for the working class, and some people—particularly trans and gender nonconforming workers, and workers who can become pregnant—are watching their rights erode away in real-time. While nearly 7 in 10 Americans say that they support unions, and nearly half say that they want to join one, only one in ten workers actually belongs to one, and those numbers are still trending down. We may only have a few years left before another anti-union Republican takes the White House, undoes any pro-worker policies the Biden administration has managed to enact, and returns the National Labor Board to its Trump-era toothlessness. The board’s general counsel, Jennifer Abruzzo, noted in a recent statement that the agency is in desperate need of more resources in order to respond to the surge in petitions and unfair labor practice charges “and obtain full remedies for workers whose labor rights have been violated.” Without even a nominally pro-labor President in office, chances of that changing are less than nil.
So maybe you are one of those non-unionized workers who’s been surreptitiously plugging “join union” into your search bar. Congratulations on being on trend! If you already work in a unionized company and simply haven’t joined yet, here’s your chance—call your union representative, sign your union card, and get involved. If not, organizing your workplace can be challenging, but getting started isn’t. Every successful union drive begins with a conversation, and builds from there. Talk with your coworkers about your shared concerns and issues, and try to find common ground, whether it’s frustration over a busted printer or more serious matters like sexual harassment or racial discrimination on the job. Back when I was working as VICE’s heavy metal editor at VICE and editorial workers decided to unionize, our biggest concern was low wages and a lack of transparency from the management; every workplace is unique, but the pain points tend to be universal.
Once you’ve built up support for the idea, you can reach out to a union organizer, who will guide you through the process and provide resources, or follow the Amazon Labor Union and Chipotle United’s example and form your own independent union. Projects like the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee connect labor-curious workers with organizers, and platforms like Coworker.org, Frank, and Unit provide a host of digital organizing tools. Labor Notes has been publishing worker-penned blueprints on how to organize successfully since 1979, and the Industrial Workers of the World have been offering workers a staunchly anti-capitalist alternative since 1905. Whether you opt to go independent, to join a more traditional labor union, or link up with the IWW, there’s no wrong way to do it. The choice is yours and your coworkers’ alone, because you are the union.
Unfortunately, it’s still much harder than it should be to join a union in this country. Our rickety labor laws exclude wide swaths of the American workforce (including farmworkers, domestic workers, and independent contractors), and rampant worker misclassification cuts even more out of the equation. Anti-union businesses pour hundreds of millions into ensuring that workers are too intimidated or demoralized to try unionizing (Amazon alone spent $4.3 million on anti-union consultants in 2021, and is currently trying—and failing— to overturn the ALU’s historic win via the courts). Workers can and do face retaliation —just ask all the workers who have been fired for trying to unionize their Starbucks locations, or Smalls himself, who was fired from Amazon in 2019 for leading a protest over Covid safety. Even when companies resort to breaking the law to bust up nascent union drives, the punishments they face for doing so are negligible at best. It’s a risk, and it’s understandable that workers who are in vulnerable positions may be wary of rocking the boat.
However, those who do choose to fight for a union anyway are building on centuries of sacrifice and struggle from countless labor activists who came before them (trust me—I wrote a whole book about them!). Whether you consider yourself blue collar, white collar, pink collar, or are simply too busy to bother with manufactured divisions at all, the same truth holds: if you have a boss, you need a union, and organizing with your coworkers is the best way to build power on the job and fight for what you deserve. You’ve got nothing to lose and everything to win. Yes, you. Yes, now.
Kim Kelly is an independent journalist, author, and labor activist based in Philadelphia. Her first book, “FIGHT LIKE HELL: The Untold History of American Labor, is out now via One Signal/Simon & Schuster.