Labor, Democracy & the Common Good

Cornell's Annual Labor Action Report shows a significant uptick in labor organizing around the country with Georgia seeing increases across the board compared to 2021. ACC dug into the numbers to get a better perspective on some emerging trends in labor action.

Labor actions in Georgia–both strikes and protests–ramped up last year, even though the percentage of Georgians who belong to unions remained minuscule at 4.4%, according to data from the Labor Action Tracker at Cornell University.

That tracks with a major increase in labor actions nationally. The number of work stoppages jumped 52% last year, to 424 actions–and the number of workers participating increased by 60% to approximately 224,000 people, according to a new report from Cornell’s Industrial and Labor Relations Worker Institute. It launched the Labor Action Tracker in late 2020.

In Georgia, there were only 15 labor actions–either strikes or protests–last year, but that’s a big increase from the 10 that the ILR Labor Action Tracker documented in 2021. Of those, there were seven strikes–all one-day actions from Starbucks workers at Atlanta’s Howell Mill and Ansley Mall stores, which both unionized last summer and Amazon workers at Atlanta warehouses and delivery centers, who are not unionized. 

The Cornell report found that the most common demands leading to work stoppages last year were for better pay, improved health and safety, and more staffing, which tracks with the demands from the Starbucks and Amazon workers locally. The top demands were tied with better pay and better health care primarily. 

National labor actions by demand in 2022. The most common reasons were to push for better pay and healthcare access. Credit: Cornell ILR

The data shows labor activism is gaining momentum, said Johnnie Kallas, who leads the ILR’s Labor Tracker, in an appearance on the Power at Work podcast. “I think, obviously, there’s an increase in worker activism, and it’s not just a product of people on social media talking about it,” said Kallas, a Ph.D. candidate at Cornell who has previously worked as a labor organizer with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and California Nurses’ Association. 

That momentum is continuing into 2023. In February alone, there were 95 total labor actions nationally, including 40 strikes, made up of 5,800 workers. So far in Georgia, Atlanta Starbucks workers staged three one-day strikes in February, and the Clocked! Diner in Athens held a protest with the SEIU’s Fight for 15 campaign.

The Cornell ILR Labor Tracker began reporting labor actions, defined as strikes, lockouts and protests, in late 2020, because the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics only tracks work stoppages that involve 1,000 or more workers. “Only recording very large work stoppages excludes the vast majority of strike activity and leaves practitioners, policymakers, and scholars misinformed about the true level of workplace conflict,” the Cornell report said.

The vast majority of work stoppages are strikes; last year, the ILR Tracker documented 417 strikes by workers and only seven lockouts initiated by employers–including one against Major League Baseball players. Unlike strikes, protests are actions outside of work hours.   

South’s non-union worker momentum

Surprisingly, labor actions in the South increased by about the same rate as nationally, since the South’s union density is much lower, Kallas said. 

The percentage of Georgians who belong to unions actually declined slightly last year, dropping from 4.8% to 4.4%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistic’s annual labor report. Only 200,000 of Georgia’s 4.52 million full and part-time employees were union members–down from 211,000 in 2021. That was well below the national union membership rate of 10.1%, which the BLS said was the lowest union density on record. 

Kallas said organizing campaigns from new unions like Amazon Labor Union, Starbucks Workers’ United, and the SEIU’s Fight for 15 contributed significantly to the labor activity momentum in 2022. About 100 of the 424 work stoppages nationally were at Starbucks shops that are members of Starbucks Workers United, according to the Cornell report.

“You’ve already seen quite a few large and significant strikes in 2023,” Kallas added. “A lot of these work stoppages have been associated with these ongoing [union] campaigns like Starbucks Workers United, which is arguably the most important labor campaign in a generation–maybe more.” 

What’s more, almost one-third (32%) of strikes last year were organized by non-union employees, according to the ILR Labor Tracker. However, the non-union strikes tend to be much smaller and shorter. 

In Atlanta, a cadre of 16 workers at an Amazon warehouse in Doraville staged a walkout last July on Amazon Prime Day–the retailer’s busiest shipping day of the year–to demand a $3 an hour pay increase and more time off. They told Atlanta Civic Circle at the time that they opted for direct action instead of the laborious and uphill battle of trying to unionize because it was a more immediate approach. 

It’s a common misconception that the only workers who can legally strike are those who are protected by a union. In fact, work stoppages by non-union workers are usually legally protected as “protected concerted activity.” That’s why the Amazon Doraville walkout last year was a legal collective action. 

Kallas finds it surprising that about one-third of work stoppages, both last year and in 2021, were by non-union workers, but he said that’s likely because it’s far more difficult for workers to unionize now. “Obstacles facing workers–not just organizing, but going on strike–I would say have increased considerably since the late 20th century,” he said.

Work stoppages by non-union workers are particularly significant in the South because they explain the disparity between low union density and the rapidly increasing rate of work stoppages, Kallas said.

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