- “No one’s wantin’ to work,” Brittany told me. “Almost everyone in my generation has no ambition.” Tweet This
- Will efforts to unionize working-class Americans be able to overcome the concerns of worker-skeptics and the apathy about unions that sometimes co-exists with nominal support? Tweet This
- At least among my working-class neighbors, apathy about unions can co-exist with the belief that the primary problem with the American worker is employee laziness, rather than corporate greed. Tweet This
When I told Brittany, age 35, that I was interested in talking about her work at an Amazon Fresh warehouse in Greater Cincinnati because Amazon had been in the news recently, she didn’t know what I was referring to.
“Oh, really, what happened?” she asked. “I haven’t been following the news.”
With the first Amazon warehouse in the nation unionizing and dozens of Starbucks stores doing the same, I wondered what my mostly white and conservative working-class neighbors in southwest Ohio thought about the state of the worker today, and whether unions might help.
Brittany began working at Amazon just before the pandemic hit. A single mom, she loved the job because it provided her a ton of flexibility, like making her own schedule—she could work as many as 40 hours or as little as 3 days a month. She didn’t mind that it was an extremely fast-paced job—“You’re basically powerwalking all the time,” she said—it just made the time go faster. She was thrilled about the $15 hourly wage and that it came with a health insurance plan.
“I love that job,” she told me. “It’s the easiest job; you cannot get fired.”
She did get fired, however, after injuring her hand in a fight with a guy (not at work) and missing a couple days of scheduled work while in the hospital. She tried letting Human Resources know that she was at the hospital and would have to miss work, but by the time she managed to figure out how to do that, she had accrued five points for missing scheduled time, which automatically triggered her firing. She’s not bitter, though. As soon as her hand heals to the point that she can hold things without dropping them, she’ll be back powerwalking the warehouse on 5-hour shifts.
Brittany’s attitudes are a reminder of why recent efforts to unionize Amazon warehouses aren’t necessarily slam-dunk cases. Will Amazon warehouses follow the successful union effort in urban Staten Island, or the thus-far failed efforts in Bessemer, Alabama? On the one hand, Americans approval of labor unions hit 68% in August 2021, the highest approval rating for labor unions since 1965. This includes 70% of college graduates, and 67% of Americans with a high school diploma or less. On the other hand, only 11% of Americans with some college and only 5% of Americans with a high school diploma or less are part of a union. For one thing, this means that some workers just don’t have much experience, good or bad, with unions. As a ”jack-of-all-trades” carpenter told me, “It’s a foreign concept, really. I just haven’t thought about it.”
Moreover, at least among my working-class neighbors, apathy about unions can co-exist with the belief that the primary problem with the American worker is employee laziness, rather than, say, corporate greed. “No one’s wantin’ to work,” Brittany told me. “Almost everyone in my generation has no ambition.”
Her complaint was echoed by a father and son I met during an evening walk. “America is lacking motivation right now,” said Franklin, the son. “Our citizens are losing our purpose.” His father, Mike, age 68, owns a small recycling business. “There’s no motivation to try to get ahead or follow their dreams,” he agreed.
While there’s probably a tendency in any age to decry the character flaws of a younger generation, there’s something their observations points to that is more nuanced than a moral blame game. Americans, particularly Generation Z, are increasingly anxious, lonely, and despairing, and their use of the words “motivation” and “purpose” speak to a felt deficit.
Both father and son said it was hard to find workers, and that it was time to “quit with the free money.” That was what was on the tip of their tongues. Mike only shared his ambivalent but open attitude about unions after I asked him about it. “I believe it’s a good bargaining platform as long as both parties are fair in the approach towards each other,” he concluded.
Sarah, age 23, and Kenneth, age 25, recently found out that Sarah is pregnant with their first child. They both work: Sarah as a waitress and Kenneth as a heavy equipment operator. They’ve rented their one-bedroom apartment for four years, and they are looking for a two or three bedroom rental but worry that the $1,200 rentals they see on the market are out of their budget. Sometimes, Sarah said, they only fill their gas tanks half full to stay within budget. The main challenge they see facing Americans is “living paycheck to paycheck.” When thinking about what could be done to address the challenge long-term, they mentioned curbing inflation. What’s notable to me is what they didn’t mention: big corporations or Wall Street firms squeezing American workers.
This is despite Sarah’s own experiences: when the pandemic hit, she was fired from her job as a waitress at Frisch’s Big Boy, a Midwestern restaurant chain that was bought out in 2015 by a private equity firm. Her understanding then was that she was laid off because customers had dried up, but because she had been fired, she couldn’t collect unemployment benefits for her about six-month period without work. She later considered hiring a lawyer and suing the restaurant, but ultimately decided it would be more trouble than it was worth. Plus, six months later she was offered the job back, with the promise that she would receive more hours—though no pay raise. Today, her hourly wage is the same as it was before the pandemic.
But Sarah is a union skeptic. She cited the example of her brother, who at one point had applied to work at a Kroger grocery store, but ultimately decided against it because it was a union job. A union job meant union dues taken out of your paycheck and “rules” that, in Sarah’s view, made things more complicated than they needed to be. She mentioned that she had heard of the recent unionization efforts at Starbucks, and that if a local Starbucks store were to unionize, she would specifically not seek a job there.
Nate, 31, is open to the idea of unions, thinking that it could lead to more pay raises and advancement. But he faces a practical problem: when a couple of his co-workers in 2019 went around suggesting to co-workers that they join a union, Nate’s bosses gathered the workers together and fired the agitating pro-union workers in front of everybody. As Nate put it, “If I wouldn’t lose my job over it, I’d probably be in favor.” This reminded me of my conversation with the manager at a local Starbucks store, when I asked him if their store had discussed unionizing. He could only tell me that he couldn’t talk about it because “corporate” had instructed managers not to discuss the issue in public.
Survey data suggest that many Americans aren’t necessarily against unions, but they do want better unions. As Oren Cass argues,
Workers have shown that they dislike the hyper-adversarialism and political activism that American unions bring into their workplaces but are eager for more representation, voice, and support than they can achieve individually. What they want, and need, is a middle ground that neither side is offering.
Cass points to 2017 survey data showing that, from 1995 to 2017, support for unions among nonunion workers rose from 32% to 48%. Workers were attracted to unions that would actually increase worker representation, enable collective bargaining, and secure a broad range of benefits; they were less attracted to unions leading strikes and endorsing political candidates.
Support for unionization is on the rise, especially among the young and if you specifically ask about Amazon worker efforts. But will efforts to unionize working-class Americans be able to overcome the concerns of worker-skeptics and the apathy about unions that sometimes co-exists with nominal support? We’ll see.
David Lapp is a co-founder of Braver Angels, a research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, and co-investigator of the Love and Marriage in Middle America Project.