In the United States, public support for labor organization has risen to its highest level in decades. A opinion poll in 2022 found that 71 percent of people in the US approve of unions, a rate not surpassed since 1965.

And the year was marked by efforts to unite among some of the US’s most prominent brands, including Starbucks and Apple.

But despite the popular momentum, 2022 proved to be a period of wins and losses for the American labor movement. Spurred on by inequality and the stress of the COVID-19 pandemicworkers engaged in historic organizational efforts at companies such as the retail giant Amazon – with mixed results.

In April, for example, a warehouse in New York became Amazon’s first location join a trade union in the company’s 28-year history. But another attempt in October at a second warehouse in New York failed collect enough votes.

The spotty gains have left experts warning that organized labor has yet to recover from decades of declining union membership.

“There is a growing interest in work organisation, especially among young people. That’s all true,” Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor of labor history at the University of California at Santa Barbara, told Al Jazeera.

“Having said all that, the fact is that this has not yet moved employers or most politicians to implement structural changes that would support the revival of unions. They don’t feel threatened yet.”

Increased activity

Amazon wasn’t the only high-profile employer to see its employees make unprecedented union offers in 2022. tech giant Apple also voted for a union for the first time, stating that they were motivated to seek “rights”. [they] don’t have at the moment”.

And two stores — one in Massachusetts, the other in Minnesota — became the first locations in the Trader Joe’s supermarket chain to form unions.

Organizing efforts were also not limited to the private sector. The University of California system, a well-known network of public universities, faced what unions called the largest workers’ strike in the history of American academia.

An estimated 48,000 academic employees carried out the nearly six-week strike, winning higher wages and stronger benefits in a deal reached in December. The agreement, union leaders said, will help workers struggling with California’s high cost of living. However, some workers voted against the deal, saying the profits were insufficient to cover basic needs.

But even within companies with strong union movements, union organizers have met fierce opposition.

For example, the Starbucks coffee chain saw outbreaks of union efforts across the country more than 250 stores vote for union since 2021. Employees at more than 100 Starbucks stores left the job in November, calling for better wages, more staff and more consistent scheduling.

But Starbucks resisted the organization’s efforts. Labor leaders have accused the coffee giant of trying to do just that intimidate workers and, in some cases, dispelling pro-union voices.

In August, a federal judge ruled that Starbucks had illegally fired seven pro-union workers from locations in Memphis, Tennessee. The court ordered the company to offer the employees their jobs back.

‘Total attack’

Jane McAlevey, a policy officer at the University of California Berkeley Labor Center, has worked as a union organizer and negotiator. She said workers shouldn’t expect companies to go along with labor-building efforts.

“Going up against a company like Starbucks or Amazon is very, very difficult,” she said, noting the significant resources the companies have at their disposal. “They are not going to give workers more power without a fight.”

McAlevey has watched the number of unions plummet. When the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics began collecting data on union membership in 1983, more than 20 percent of the workforce was a union member.

That figure already represented a substantial decline from previous highs, but by 2021 that number had nearly halved to just 10.3 percent.

McAlevey explained that the sharp decline is the legacy of an “all-out attack” by anti-labor groups over the past 50 years as they worked to contain and then reverse the rise of organized labor.

That effort included the proliferation of “right to work” laws, which prevent workplaces from requiring workers to pay union dues. McAlevey also pointed to political and economic shifts, particularly in the 1980s, that resulted in greater barriers to labor unions.

“Sectors with a high degree of unionization, such as the automotive industry, are being shipped abroad, and so are politicians [then-US President] Ronald Reagan is beginning to signal that they will take a hostile approach to unions,” McAlevey said.

Early in his administration, Reagan, a Republican, intervened in a 1981 strike led by air traffic controllers seeking better pay and shorter hours. Reagan viewed the strike as a “danger to national security” and resolved to fire and replace striking workers, prohibiting them from ever being rehired by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Those actions, McAlevey said, represented a “cross the bow” for collective bargaining.

A friend in the White House?

American politics has changed in the decades since, and then Democrat Joe Biden won the presidency in 2020, he vowed to be “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen”.

But this year, halfway through his first term, Biden faced a major test of his pro-labor credentials.

Railroad workers prepared for a nationwide strike that companies warned would bring the US economy to a standstill. According to the Association of American Railroads, an estimated 30 percent of U.S. freight transport would be carried by rail, and a strike could have cost the economy as much as $2 billion a day.

During the summer, the Biden administration helped with tinkering a tentative agreement that would increase pay for railway workers. Several unions voted to ratify the deal, but some of the groups with the largest memberships voted against itciting unmet demands, including a lack of paid sick leave.

Facing deadlock, Congress intervened to impose close the deal and prevent the workers from going on strike. At the same time, Congress blasted an amendment that would have given workers seven paid sick days.

While Biden justified the intervention as averting a “real disaster” for the economy, labor advocates denounced the move as curtailing the railroad workers’ ability to negotiate and denying them the right to strike.

In a open letter to the Biden administration, more than 500 labor historians declared their support for the railroad workers.

“We are alarmed by your decision to ask Congress to impose an unfair and unpopular settlement in the current railroad labor negotiations,” they wrote.

The historians warned that government interventions on labor could have long-term consequences. They also challenged Biden to fulfill his employment promises.

“What do these commitments mean if the women and men who work in an essential sector like the railways cannot count on your support in their fight for basic protection?”

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