New Economic Realities   //   December 28, 2022

How Gen Z helped galvanize a national retail unionization movement in 2022

A swell of unionization activity hit the retail sector in 2022, spearheaded by a new generation of workers.

On the heels of widespread movements at Starbucks and Amazon, workers at some Apple, REI and Trader Joe’s locations began organizing throughout the past year. And while the reasons behind each union effort may be unique to each store, a common thread is that younger Gen Z workers were leading the charge.

The National Labor Relations Board saw 2,510 union representation petitions filed in the last fiscal year, a 53% increase from the year prior and the highest since 2016. It also saw a 19% increase in the number of unfair labor practice charges. Taken together, the caseload is the largest single-year increase since 1976. And much of this unionization wave was thanks to galvanized Gen Z workers.

One ​​Trader Joe’s employee at a unionized location, who spoke to Modern Retail on the condition of anonymity, said they believe the nationwide movement gave young workers at their store an incentive to participate.

“Looking at Starbucks and Amazon was a big help, because you have that example set for you, and you feel like you can follow that example,” they said.

Pushes for higher pay and safer working conditions following the lockdowns of the pandemic helped fuel a rise in the number of union petitions. The bump couples with widespread approval: about 71% of Americans had a favorable view of unions per an August 2022 Gallup poll, the highest level dating back to 1965.

But support is heightened among Gen Z workers, or those born in the late ’90s through the early 2010s. The Center for American Progress found Gen Zers have a mean 64.3 approval rating of unions, compared to 60.5 for millennials and 57.8 for Gen X.

Despite the uprising of support, efforts aren’t always successful.

Plenty of petitions get withdrawn — there were 457 in fiscal year 2022. Elections also fail, like when employees at a Trader Joe’s in New York City voted against unionizing 94-66. Or employees pushback against efforts, with a recent case of a majority of workers opposing an organized movement at an Apple store.

And should a union ultimately be formed, there’s the frequently drawn-out process of getting a first contract. Bloomberg Law cites the average contract negotiation as taking 465 days.

The Trader Joe’s worker, who is under 35, said their store’s victory was carried by a young, diverse employee base. These workers had dealt with stressful conditions during the pandemic, they said, like agitated customers and concerns about getting sick. The movement to organize caught on quickly, with a 55-5 vote.

“Our store is very young, it’s mostly female. It’s very queer. The politics of everyone leans more pro-union than anti-union,” the Trader Joe’s worker said.

A youth-heavy sector

Margaret Poydock, a policy analyst with the Economic Policy Institute who studies the labor movement, said the increased interest in workers’ rights from Gen Z workers stems in part from the time they’ve grown up. The pandemic, for example, put added stress on so-called “essential workers” or frontline workers in the retail industry at grocery stores, restaurants and shops.

Younger workers are overrepresented in those categories, according to federal data. About 24% of retail trade workers are under 24, compared with 12% of workers overall. And 46% are under 34, compared to 35% of workers overall.

“They have lived through the Great Recession, and they had to live through the pandemic,” Poydock said. “So when they enter the workforce, they can see that they can change the working conditions, and one way is through unionization.”

Some of the unionization efforts were highly publicized — like the store-by-store Starbucks movement that spread across the country from Buffalo, New York last December. So were pro-worker demonstrations among Amazon employees, like when air field workers in California staged a one-day-walkout in their push for higher pay.

But smaller retail chains have also seen organizing efforts, like Half Price Books. The Texas-based chain has more than 100 stores across the Midwest, the south and the southwest, and six locations unionized in an effort led by the UFCW. The union counts more than 118,000 retail workers among its members, including some at CVS, H&M, Zara and Macy’s.

The motive and the method

David Young, vice president at the UFCW, said younger generations are “less tolerant” of seeing high CEO salaries and burgeoning corporate profits. This group is also plugged into social media where they can witness abuses of workers, learn about worker-favorable conditions in other countries.

“They’re not a group that wants other people to do stuff for them,” Young said. “They want to do more, or at least have a say.”

This generation is also connecting with organizers across the country and using social media to amplify their efforts. Starbucks workers in California, for example, swapped tips throughout the organizing drive. And the Inland Empire Amazon Workers coalition is running an Instagram series featuring stories of warehouse workers sharing their experiences.

“It does reveal the process, in a way, to everyone that demystifies the process,” he said. “It’s one-on-one, worker-to-worker conversations, where people say ‘Oh, that person didn’t take it anymore, I’m not going to do it either.’”

The motivations for unionizing workers vary from location to location and worker to worker, Young said. For some, it might be a matter of pay — the average unionized UFCW retail worker earns $5,400 more than a nonunion peer. But Young said issues around scheduling, workplace safety, time off or health care are often more important for organizing workers.

“If it was just money, people can go find a different job, depending where they live, it pays them more money then their current job,” he said. “It’s not about that. It’s about improving where they currently work, because they like working with the people they work with. But they just want their boss to treat them properly.”