Is a labor storm developing at retail?
Management and labor unions have been at odds with very few exceptions for as long as the two have been around. This has certainly been the case in the retailing business. The question right now, however, is whether nonunion frontline workers have been made to feel more disposable during the novel coronavirus pandemic and if they will turn to collective bargaining agreements in an effort to seek safety in numbers.
A report issued by the Bureau of Labor Statistics last week found that the total number of union members in the U.S. fell last year by 2.2 percent compared to 2019. The percentage of all workers with union cards, however, rose by half a percentage point to 10.5 percent in 2020. The federal agency explained that this apparent contradiction reflects greater job losses among nonunion workers, primarily those in low hourly wage positions in hospitality, leisure and other industries.
The BLS findings may or may not point to a perfect storm, of sorts, coming the way of retailers. The industry directly employs 32 million people, according to the National Retail Federation, which along with other organizations representing retailers points to the business as an entry point for employment in the U.S. while offering those looking to build careers a wide variety of advancement opportunities over time.
Conflicts between workers and management have been placed in a more contrasting light since the pandemic hit. Issues of working conditions, racial equity, income disparity and job security have grown even more prevalent at a time when “essential” retailers have produced record financial results while those designated “non-essential” have had to revert to furloughs, layoffs and reduced man hours in an effort to balance demand with operating expenses.
NEW YORK IS A UNION TOWN! Thanks to all our sisters and brothers in labor for standing with the Hunts Point Market workers of @Teamsters Local 202. The workers who feed NYC deserve a fair wage! #1u pic.twitter.com/NLsUwhNx4p
— Teamsters JC 16 (@TeamstersJC16) January 19, 2021
Some retailers with nonunion workforces have raised starting wages to $15 an hour, but even that is no guarantee that some workers may not turn to unions. A case in point is a vote scheduled next month at an Amazon.com warehouse in Alabama when workers will decide if they will be represented by the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union. Employees at the facility approached the union in response to productivity tracking measures put in place by the e-tailing giant. More than 2,000 of 5,800 employees have signed cards calling for a vote.
- Union Members – 2020 – The Bureau of Labor Statistics
- Retail supports 52 million American jobs – National Retail Federation
- Amazon Union Drive Takes Hold in Unlikely Place – The New York Times
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What is your forecast for labor relations between retailers and their frontline workforces in 2021 and beyond? What impact, if any, do you think the passage of a higher federal minimum wage would have on employer/employee relations?