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Quiet quitting, real quitting, unionizing — what else are American workers up to?

Organizer Chris Smalls speaks after his Amazon Labor Union won a vote to form the company's first unionized U.S. warehouse in Staten Island, N.Y., in April.
Andrea Renault
AFP via Getty Images
Organizer Chris Smalls speaks after his Amazon Labor Union won a vote to form the company's first unionized U.S. warehouse in Staten Island, N.Y., in April.

How we work, when we work, how much we work – it's all shifting on a scale not seen in decades.

The pandemic left workplaces reimagined and workers changed. The number of job openings right now outnumbers people looking for work by almost two-to-one.

Last year saw a record exodus of workers, and companies say they are still struggling to hire. Millions have re-evaluated what type of work they were willing to do for what type of pay or benefits and in what type of environment.

On Labor Day, here's a snapshot of what's happening with American workers.

Jobs are growing, and workers are still quitting

Despite inflation and economic slowdown, the labor market remains tight. Employers kept adding jobs all summer, particularly in food and retail. Layoffs have been confined to pockets of the economy – the tech sector, cryptocurrency, home buying – and to select companies, like the beleaguered Bed Bath & Beyond.

Most employers would rather hold on to workers. Too many have grappled with short staffing: More than 4 million people quit their jobs each month for the past year, the highest in decades.

It's not just about the money, it's about worker well-being

While millions quit, others have felt emboldened to fight for change.

From baristasto warehouse staff to frontline nurses, more workers are filing charges of unfair labor practices against their employers or staging walkouts and strikes. They're demanding not just higher wages, but improvements to safety and wellbeing: longer breaks, more paid leave, more control over their schedules.

Office culture, too, has changed. Just over a third of workers were going to offices in person at the end of August in New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, according to Kastle Systems, which tracks office card swipes. At Apple, J.P. Morgan, the Washington Post and other companies, workers have pushed back on the notion that they have to return to offices to be productive.

And the TikTok-fueled concept of "quiet quitting" has stormed into summertime work conversations: the idea of doing the bare minimum at work, skipping the hustle and those above-and-beyond tasks. Some, like Arianna Huffington, are dismayed at the idea, calling it a step toward quitting on life; while many experts and workers see the term as a misnomer, better described as boundary-setting for personal time.

Biggest American brands are getting their first unions

Labor organizers declared mid-2022 the #hotlaborsummer. Petitions to form a union are up almost 60% compared to last year, continuing to reverse a long-running decline in union interest. Many of these workers are in food and retail, coffee shops and non-profits, media and tech. Labor experts say more women and particularly women of color are leading the charge.

Unions have won first-time victories at big-name companies: Amazon and REI in New York, an Apple store in Maryland, Trader Joe's in Massachusetts and Minnesota, Chipotle in Michigan and of course Starbucks, where more than 200 stores nationwide have unionized in less than a year.

A union is about collective bargaining, but getting there is arduous

Companies have many paths to try to slow down or even undo labor organizing. A key goal for new unions is a collective-bargaining contract to seal their wage, benefit and other demands. But research finds that when an employer resists, only a small fraction of workers who unionize successfully reach a contract.

Legal delays are abundant. Amazon, for example, launched a monthslong appeal to overturn the historic union win at its Staten Island warehouse. Starbucks has so far begun negotiations with only three of more than 200 stores. Both companies have taken the remarkable step of challenging the fairness of the union election process itself.

Union membership remains low, though support is at a 57-year high

Only about 10% of U.S. workers belonged to a union as of early 2022. At the same time, the level of public support for unions has been growing for over a decade.

This summer, 71% of Americans told Gallup they approve of unions, a level not seen since 1965. Labor experts say support is even higher with younger people, potentially growing a new generation of organizers.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.
Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.