A look at recent unionization efforts by the numbers

2023 was a massive year for unions, setting them up for big moves on the labor front in 2024.  

Pew Research examined the data and found that 2023 had the most work stoppages and strikes of any year since 2000. In total, 30 major actions led 464,410 workers to sit idle for a cumulative 16.7 million days. 

Among biggest stoppages of the year: 

  • SAG-AFTRA saw 160,000 workers striking for 82 workdays, or a total 13,120,000 days idle. 
  • 11,500 Writers Guild workers struck for 102 workdays, or 1,173,000 days idle. 
  • United Auto Workers saw 53,700 workers idling for 43 workdays, or 925,900 days.  
  • A group of unions working for Kaiser Permanente involved 75,600 workers idling for three workdays for a total of 226,800 hours.  

Beyond the strikes themselves, major organization took place on several fronts. One of the most headline-grabbing efforts was by Starbucks employees. The coffee giant has been fending off labor organization for nearly two years — including through alleged union-busting activities, such as closing stores that tried to unionize 

But we’re beginning to see a major shift in how companies are talking about unions, both internally and externally. That includes Starbucks. 

“We have asked Workers United — on behalf of our represented partners — to work with us to break the gridlock and agree to a collective bargaining process with the hopeful goal of reaching agreements in 2024,” wrote Starbucks CEO Laxman Narasimhan in a letter to partners, as they call coffee shop workers. That’s a far cry from when former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz told a barista,if you’re not happy at Starbucks, you can go work for another company” after she questioned him about the response to unionization drives. 

Nick Setyan, an equity analyst at Wedbush, told Axios that at the heart of Starbucks’ executive’s anti-union stance was a sense that they were already treating employees well.

“Internally, they felt kind of aggrieved,” he said. One of Starbucks’ primary PR tactics had been emphasizing their better-than-industry-average wages and benefits for employees. 

Costco, another company long known for its strong pay and benefit packages for front-line workers, reacted in a very different way when a store in Norfolk, Virginia, voted to unionize. 

“The fact that a majority of Norfolk employees felt that they wanted or needed a union constitutes a failure on our part,” wrote Costco’s current and former CEOs in a memo to all American employees in late December, CNN reported. It was the first successful union vote for Costco in two decades. 

The CEOs wrote that they were “not disappointed in our employees; we’re disappointed in ourselves as managers and leaders.” The letter, which was posted on Reddit, goes on to say that while the company “isn’t anti-union,” they’ve prided themselves on treating employees well without a union.  

Costco’s response has been widely hailed, moving from internal memo to PR win and cementing their position as employee friendly. How they will actually work with the union will be a true test, but they’re saying the right things.  

The road ahead 

Unions will continue to flex their muscle in the year ahead. Battles are raging at Amazon and an empowered UAW has its eye on expanded unionization at Tesla and Toyota. Other organizations with employee friendly reputations, like REI, are also seeing unions at their doorstep. 

It doesn’t matter how well you think you’re treating employees if they don’t feel like they have control and a voice. Think of it in the context of our current economic picture: By most measures, the American economy is doing great, but many don’t feel that it is. So come the demands for change. 

This is a wake-up call for communicators: you must be in the room during conversations about unionization efforts. The tone and tenor of communications internally and externally can have a massive impact on PR. One wrong word can prompt backlash and stymie hiring efforts for years to come. But smart, empathetic messaging can show that you are committed to employees and willing to work to make them feel supported.  

Allison Carter is editor-in-chief of PR Daily. Follow her on Twitter or LinkedIn.


Ragan.com Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive the latest articles from Ragan.com directly in your inbox.