Efforts to organize at Starbucks, Amazon and other major companies have proliferated in 2022, with prominent politicians like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders publicly backing labor organizers.
But do Utahns support labor unions?
The answer is yes, according to a recent Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll, which found that 54% of Utahns somewhat or strongly approve of labor unions. Only 35% said they disapprove and 10% said they don’t know.
The results come amid a national uptick in support for unions, after a Gallup poll last August found that 68% of Americans approve of unions — the highest mark since 1965.
It’s not surprising that Utah is less approving than the nation as a whole, given the partisan split in support. Of those who identify themselves as “very liberal,” 98% said they approve of unions, compared to just 20% among the “very conservative.”
Unions still received relatively strong support from Republicans — 42% of whom said they approve. Support was highest among those between the ages of 18 and 40, with strong support dropping off with those age 41 and older.
Dan Jones & Associates conducted the survey of 808 registered voters in Utah from May 7-13. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.46 percentage points.
What support for labor unions means
While a majority of Utahns approve of unions overall, views on the subject are nuanced, with some respondents expressing concern that some labor organizations take advantage of workers or make communication within companies more difficult.
One of the poll’s participants, Henry Hintze, of West Valley City, said he’s always been in favor of workers unionizing, and he even worked as a unionized pipe layer for a year when he was younger.
“I think businesses are there to make a profit, but sometimes that comes at the expense of paying their employees a decent wage,” he said.
Still, he thinks unions can run into the same problems businesses have with managing people, because “almost any big organization ... can become too much trying to benefit themselves rather than their constituents.”
With a career working in management, Christian Jensen, of Pleasant Grove, said it can be “much more complicated” trying to manage a team of unionized workers, but he acknowledged the good that can come from employees having the ability to collectively bargain to protect their interests.
“They can be an effective tool, but a tool that gets used incorrectly or abused as well,” Jensen said.
Because of Utah’s status as an at-will employment state, Edi Lorenz, of Layton, said she thinks unions provide much-needed protections for workers. In more labor-friendly states — like her previous home, California — she thinks unions wield too much power and can upset industries and significantly drive up costs for consumers.
“I would say, in general, I approve,” Lorenz said. “But I think I’d definitely say in context, because if you’d asked me that same question when I was a California resident, I would say disapprove.”
Why do a majority of people support unions?
Jacob Lawson, a barista who helped organize the first union effort at a Starbucks store in Utah, said he would have hoped to see public support for unions be higher in the state but isn’t surprised given Utah’s conservative leanings.
He acknowledged the concerns that some have about unions, but he stressed the importance of grassroots organizing so workers can bargain for contracts that truly address their needs instead of simply signing on with a union contract that has existed for decades.
Lawson credits the COVID-19 pandemic and all of the social upheaval that came with it for the levels of support for unions. As inflation continues to rise, it gives workers all the more motivation to organize.
“That we have such a despairing wealth gap — it being worse than it was even during the Gilded Age — is even more an example of why unions are important,” he said. “I think the wealth balance was greatest in this country when unions were at their strongest ... and they’re the weakest they have been in a while up until recently.”
Seeing executives like Starbucks’ Howard Schultz or Amazon’s Jeff Bezos make billions of dollars while their employees have languished in low-paying, difficult jobs has changed peoples’ minds, Lawson said.
“We’ve watched corporate greed get out of hand very quickly during the pandemic,” he said.
Lorenz agreed, saying, “it’s a positive sign that Amazon (employees) have chosen to organize, because before economic pressures kicked in they were really being treated horribly. There’s a lot of companies that will take advantage of their workers without a union.”
Jordy Lundin, a barista who works with Lawson, said he hears regularly from customers that they support the store’s effort to unionize, not just for the employees, but because they believe a union would make for a better experience for customers.
“They’re not pro-union for us, because it affects them,” he said. “They’re pro-union because they come in every day and see us working super hard. ... Our regulars change their online order names for mobile order to things like ‘Pro-union John’ or ‘Pro-union Susan’ because they know that we actually care and we put in the extra work for them.”
Lawson said he hopes employees from other companies will try to unionize as well, and he thinks the pandemic has given workers more leverage to ask for better pay, benefits and conditions.
Lawson’s store in Cottonwood Heights will vote on Friday, May 27, to certify their unionization with the National Labor Relations Board. Although there may be a few dissenters, Lawson expects the union organizers have more than enough support to win.