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Union wins made big news this year. Here are 5 reasons why it's not the full story

Workers in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, take to the streets in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Daniel Boczarski
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Getty Images for SEIU
Workers in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, take to the streets in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

This year, a rare burst of union momentum produced some major victories – along with some losses and significant fights with employers.

Starbucks and Amazon were far from alone facing major union drives. As unemployment remained low and wages grew, workers in education and healthcare, food service and retail continued the pandemic-era push for higher pay, better sick leave and other changes to their working conditions. But tangible results are hard to quantify — so far. 2023 may tell us a lot more about the durability and clout of the resurgent labor movement.

Here's some of what happened this year.

1. The number of union elections soared in 2022 — and unions won most of them.

According to the National Labor Relations Board, there were 1,249 union elections in fiscal year 2022, a nearly 50% increase from the year before.

Workers voted in favor of unionizing in 72% of those elections, up from 61% in 2021.

A few factors help explain that rise. Public support for unions is at a 60-year high (more on that below). And Starbucks played an outsized role in driving up that number. Starbucks accounted for roughly a quarter of all union elections this year, and the union was victorious in four out of every five elections.

This year saw unions established at workplaces that had never or seldom seen labor organizing. Workers voted to unionize for the first time at Trader Joe's, Apple and Chipotle stores. The historic union victory at a massive Amazon warehouse on Staten Island is still being challenged by the company.

Other notable union campaigns this year involved graduate students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, health care workers at Kaiser Permanente and elsewhere, and auto workers at Ultium Cells, a GM-owned electric vehicle battery cell plant in Warren, Ohio.

2. Companies mounted forceful counter campaigns, and some are working.

Companies often say unions disrupt their direct relationship with workers. To dissuade employees from unionizing, they have preemptively raised wages, added benefits and made workplace changes. They have also flooded stores with managers and in some cases, fired pro-union workers citing other, unrelated violations.

All this seems to be working. Amazon workers at other warehouses voted against unionizing. So did workers at a Home Depot and one Trader Joe's location. Momentum has slowed at Starbucks, where about 270 unionized locations represent less than 3% of all company-operated stores in the U.S.

Amazon Labor Union President Chris Smalls speaks at a protest outside of a New York event featuring Amazon CEO Andy Jassy. The independent ALU won a union election at a warehouse in Staten Island in April, but has been unable to win other union elections.
Spencer Platt / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Amazon Labor Union President Chris Smalls speaks at a protest outside of a New York event featuring Amazon CEO Andy Jassy. The independent ALU won a union election at a warehouse in Staten Island in April, but has been unable to win other union elections.

Federal labor officials this year stepped up legal challenges, accusing high-profile employers – including Amazon and Starbucks – of unfair labor practices (which the companies deny). Federal law prohibits employers from retaliating for union activity or even questioning an employee about union activity. Still, companies have long legal paths to challenge any related accusation.

3. Most of those union victories haven't led to collective-bargaining contracts yet

For all the prominent union wins of 2022, it's a very slow process getting to a collective-bargaining contract to negotiate pay raises or other changes that unionized workers want.

At the Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, the process hasn't even begun – as Amazon Labor Union's win remains contested, even after a monthslong hearing.

San Francisco International Airport food service workers carry signs as they strike outside of a terminal at the airport on September 26, 2022 in San Francisco, California.
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images
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Getty Images
San Francisco International Airport food service workers carry signs as they strike outside of a terminal at the airport on September 26, 2022 in San Francisco, California.

At Starbucks, negotiations have been constantly disrupted as workers accuse the company of stalling tactics meant to discourage further unionization, while the company accuses the union of illegally recording and broadcasting bargaining sessions. Each side has blamed the other for not bargaining in good faith.

4. Some union workers got big raises, even keeping up with inflation.

Overall, wages this year increased 5.1% over last year. With far more openings than available workers, wages grew even faster at some of the lowest-paying jobs. But adjusting for 7% inflation, overall wages actually declined, and many workers felt like they were losing ground.

Some unions were able to get more from employers, successfully negotiating raises matching or even beating inflation this year.

Rail workers didn't get everything they wanted out of the protracted talks with the freight railroads, but they did get a 7% raise in 2022, with promises of another 8.5% over the next two years, plus cash bonuses every year.

Food service workers at San Francisco International Airport won a 30% wage increase over two years after striking for three days in September. They'll see wages rise from about $17 an hour to $22 an hour by 2024. The deal also included health insurance, retirement, and a one-time bonus.

5. Americans approve of unions at levels not seen since the 1960s – but next year's economy looms large

Only about 10% of U.S. workers belong to a union, but 68% of Americans approve of unions, according to Gallup. That's a level of support not seen since 1965.

Spirited union campaigns at coffeehouses, on university campuses and at companies such as Starbucks and REI that have long positioned themselves as progressive have brought a new generation of workers into labor's fold. Whether they stay will likely depend on their career prospects in other fields and how they fare in collective bargaining.

The economy is another factor. Economists say it's not a given that a recession – if one happens – would snuff out union enthusiasm. Sometimes, when things look down workers may feel like they need a union to represent their interests. Historically, though, an economic downturn is a difficult moment for labor organizing and campaigns for better pay and benefits.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.
Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.