George Gresham is President of 1199SEIU, the nation’s largest healthcare union representing 450,000 members in New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Maryland, Florida, and the District of Columbia.

A few months ago, I wrote a column asking organized labor and working people across the country to support union leader Chris Smalls and the heroic Amazon workers who successfully organized Amazon’s huge JFK8 fulfillment center on Staten Island.  It is the first union at Amazon, a massive $2 trillion corporation which holds 40% of the entire ecommerce market.

The campaign took years and was not without hardship. Smalls’ organizing at the plant, where workers long griped about punishing, dangerous workloads and outrageous schedules, eventually got him fired. Despite the setbacks and the employer’s harsh anti-union campaign, in March his 8,000 colleagues voted to join the Amazon Labor Union.

This did not happen in a vacuum.  After years of declining union membership, more and more US workers are petitioning the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to oversee votes to turn their workplaces into union shops.  Last month, the NLRB announced that union election petitions jumped a whopping 58% in the first nine months of fiscal year 2022.  Workers submitted 1,892 petitions to organize during this period, 695 more than during the same months a year earlier.

This is great news for the labor movement, which over the last five decades has seen declining membership across the board, despite the fact that large majorities of American workers continue to hold pro-union views. Today, about 9% of American workers belong to a union, about half of the percentage 30 years ago. Yet recent Gallup polling shows that labor unions now have the highest approval rating among the US population since 1965.

Many of these latest organizing campaigns are happening at the largest and most powerful companies in the world—from Starbucks to Apple to Amazon.  This is a potential game changer for our economy because these companies employ armies of workers, especially younger people, who serve coffee, sell technology, and make sure your online orders are packaged and delivered to your door as soon as possible.  In a service economy, these are the people who make our country tick.

These votes mean that frontline workers, burnt out by the impact of the pandemic and decades of growing inequality and economic stagnation, are seeing past the hype, manipulation and intimidation that big businesses have long used to keep workers obedient and unorganized.

As much as big business wants to suppress the truth, the secret is out—unions raise incomes, improve benefits, create job security, and reduce racial and gender disparities.

Union members are paid, on average, 11.2% more than non-union fellow workers on the same job.  Ninety-six percent of union members enjoy health insurance paid for by their employer—only 69 percent of non-union shops have the same. More union members have paid sick leave (93%) than workers at non-union shops (75%) and they are vastly more likely to enjoy a defined retirement benefit (79% to 17%).

Union membership is the great equalizer when it comes to racial, gender and social justice. Union membership guarantees that people working the same job receive commensurate compensation regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation.

It’s why Black, Latino and female workers make 26%, 39.2% and 23.8% more, respectively, overall than their non-union counterparts. The stability these good jobs and benefits provide are reflected in stable families and communities.

Unions benefit all working people, not just union members.  Unions, for example, were instrumental in the recent recognition of Juneteenth as a federal holiday.  The labor movement has played a pivotal role throughout our history, from the Civil Rights Movement, establishing the 40-hour work week and the notion of the weekend, and abolishing child labor.

Today is an exciting time for workers who are seeking a brighter future and a voice on the job, as we watch the next generation of leaders, like Chris Smalls, flex their collective muscle and speak truth to power.  By this time next month, I hope to report a major victory for 400 registered nurses in New Jersey who are currently organizing to become the newest members of my union, 1199SEIU, in what would be the biggest healthcare organizing win in that state since the pandemic. 

I urge you to support today’s union and not-yet-union workers as they continue the struggle to win dignity and rights for all people.  I’m thrilled to see new rank-and-file leaders breathing new life into our labor movement, and you should be too—simply because we are stronger when we unite for our common good.

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