Pro-union protestors rally outside a Starbucks in Great Neck demanding...

Pro-union protestors rally outside a Starbucks in Great Neck demanding the reinstatement of a former employee.  Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

Union membership on Long Island surpassed pre-pandemic levels last year, bucking a long-term national trend of continued decline and outpacing New York City, a new report shows. The data comes amid a surge of union organizing efforts locally and nationally, particularly by workers in retail, traditionally a nonunion industry.  

Last year, an estimated 26.5% of employed Long Islanders, or 336,246 workers, were in a union, according to a Hofstra University report released this week. Membership on the Island was 24.5%, or 328,916 workers, in 2019, according to the report, which calculated membership estimates using data from the Current Population Survey, a report produced by the Census Bureau and the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“The fact that Long Island has managed to hold fairly steady with its unionization and actually increase union membership is a really interesting sign of resilience,” said report author Gregory DeFreitas, Hofstra economics professor and director of the university’s Center for the Study of Labor and Democracy.

DeFreitas said Long Island has historically maintained its membership rate at around 25%, due in large part to Nassau and Suffolk's high number of unionized government workers. Between 2019 and 2021, an average of 16.1% of private sector employees on the Island were in a union, compared to 68.1% of public sector workers, according to his analysis. 

Among the factors contributing to the Island's increased union membership has been the growth of sectors with a historically strong union presence, like construction, health care and public education, DeFreitas said. 

But he said the growth does not suggest that "unions are sweeping across the Island," and that even during a tight labor market that favors jobseekers — the region's  unemployment rate was 3.3% in July — the overall trend in the United States has been shrinking membership.

Nationally, the rate of union membership has been steadily declining since the early '80s when roughly 1 in 5 American workers were unionized. The rate was 10.3% in 2021, equal to its pre-pandemic level, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Membership rates had ticked up slightly, both on the Island and nationally, in 2020 because pandemic job losses were concentrated among nonunion workers, boosting the union percentage. 

In New York City, union membership was 20.5% in 2021, or 689,000 workers, up slightly from a historic low of 19.8% in 2019, the Hofstra report showed. While the city's rate has dropped significantly from 35.5% in 1986, the Island's unionization rate has been more stable and over the past five years, "Long Island has managed to have a higher fraction of its workforce unionized than the famous union town that is New York City,” DeFreitas said.

Earnings for union workers in the New York City/Long Island metro area are typically 12% to 13% higher than nonunion pay — even after controlling for education, job experience and other relevant characteristics, his analysis found.

The Hofstra report comes out against the backdrop of new union activity sparked by the demands of retail, warehouse and service workers deemed essential during the pandemic. Recognizing the critical role they played in the nation's economy during the worst of the crisis, many workers are pushing for more say in their workplaces.

Baristas at 220 Starbucks locations, including three on Long Island, have voted to unionize in recent months. Workers at an Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island with about 4,500 full-time employees became the first in the nation to unionize one of the ecommerce giant’s facilities in April. In early August, employees at a Trader Joe's in Minneapolis became the second of the grocery chain's locations to unionize. Last week, workers at a Chipotle in Lansing, Michigan, voted for a union.

Even the "knights" and "squires" who work at a Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament location in New Jersey unionized this summer.

Additionally, farm workers at Pindar Vineyards in Peconic, Palmer Vineyards in Riverhead and Paumanok Vineyards in Aquebogue are among the first in the state to have union representation.

“The pandemic has shown workers their true worth,” said John Durso, president of the Long Island Federation of Labor AFL-CIO, which represents workers in more than 160 union locals. 

Durso credits much of the recent union activity to a campaign to unionize workers at an Amazon facility in Bessemer, Alabama, last year. 

“They lit the fire,” he said.

While that union push ultimately failed, Durso said it gave workers the confidence needed to organize their own workplaces.

“Workers around the country were inspired by what these people did,” he said.

Additionally, Durso said the National Labor Relations Board under the Biden administration has a greater commitment to ensuring a "level playing field" between labor and business during disputes.

Chris Smalls, 34, a lead organizer behind the successful union push at Amazon's JFK8 fulfillment center in Staten Island, said the public has become more supportive of workers over the last two years. 

“The pandemic definitely exposed a lot about the working conditions for the essential workers in this country," said Smalls, president and founder of the independent Amazon Labor Union. “A lot more people are paying attention to labor."

Smalls said the pandemic was "a catalyst for what’s been going on" with many workers in lower-paid jobs. "Being deemed essential workers means we should be paid as such and treated as such," he said. 

Since April, workers at Starbucks stores in Massapequa, Westbury and Farmingville have unionized, with workers at a Great Neck location narrowly voting against unionizing.

Those local organizing efforts have largely been led by younger workers.

That’s no coincidence, said labor organizing expert Patricia Campos-Medina, co-director of the New York State AFL-CIO/Union Leadership Institute at Cornell University.

“The new organizing is happening with young workers and workers of color,” Campos-Medina said.  “They are the ones who have been in a precarious situation at work. They have never known a full-time job in many cases, they have never known a job with benefits.”

Millions of manufacturing jobs left the country following the 1993 passage of NAFTA, eroding what had historically been a major source of union strength, she said. In their place came lower-paid service jobs with few benefits and no collective bargaining agreements in place.

It was a status quo that consumers accepted in many cases as a trade-off for cheaper-priced goods and services, Campos-Medina said. Over the last two years, that trade-off has been challenged, she said.

“There was not a recognition that the work that these lower-wage workers did was essential,” she said. “That shifted during the pandemic.”

The recent spate of union activity comes at a time when American’s support for unions is at its highest in over half a century.

In a Gallup poll released Tuesday, 71% of Americans said they supported unions, the highest level since 1965. In 2019, 64% of Americans said they supported unions. 

But opponents argue that private sector unions disrupt business’ ability to adapt quickly.

“Their operational flexibility goes down substantially because there are dozens of situations where they suddenly need to get permission from a union to change how they operate,” said Ken Girardin, a fellow at the Empire Center for Public Policy, a conservative think tank in Albany.

In addition to the financial costs, Girardin said elected officials' support of local labor organizing can make companies wary.

“The business community sees politicians giving these open-ended, uninformed endorsements for labor’s position, and it makes [businesses] wonder what sort of treatment they’re in store for if their workers unionize or consider unionizing," he said. 

As a result, businesses may think twice before relocating to or expanding into an area like Long Island, Girardin said.

Ryan Stanton, executive director of the Long Island Federation of Labor, said younger workers are likely to continue the trend of organizing their workplaces as years of wage stagnation and high levels of college debt have made them frustrated with working conditions.

“We have a highly educated workforce that’s fed up,” said Stanton, 34, who took over the top post at the labor organization in January after longtime leader Roger Clayman, 71, stepped down.

“They’re skilled, they’re educated, they’re knowledgeable, and they have an economic framework that’s been rewritten while they were following the proposed path to prosperity," he said. 

“The nature of work may change, however, ultimately people’s desire and need to provide for their family doesn’t go away," he said. 

Pharmacist with RWDSU/UFCW Local 338 (Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union/United Food and Commercial Workers) at MedMen, a medical cannabis dispensary in Lake Success

Naidu said he used to think unions were more burdensome than they were worth.

“Fast forward, now I’m working in an industry where I can tell people … ‘unions are great,’” said Naidu, a shop steward.  

Before joining the cannabis industry in 2018, Naidu worked as a retail pharmacist in independent, nonchain pharmacies. He worked 10 to 12 hours a day and rarely had time for a lunch break.  

“I was just burnt out,” he said.

The pay and workflow at MedMen were an improvement, but he said the high cost of the company’s employee health plan was a downside. The following year, though, Local 338 unionized his dispensary.  

“When the union got involved, in terms of the health care, that was a slam dunk,” he said. Now with access to a retirement plan, paid time off, a limit of 8-hour workdays and a deductible-free health care plan, he said he can’t imagine working anywhere else.  

“When you have union backing, your job turns into a career,” Naidu said.

Union barista with Workers United at Starbucks in Farmingville

Cornetta had no experience with unions before she started to organize her co-workers earlier this year.  

But after they voted 13-1 in July to join the Workers United New York New Jersey Regional Board, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union, the full-time Stony Brook University senior said she’s hopeful about what a union can do for her and her co-workers.  

Cornetta said she was inspired by successful unionizing efforts at two Buffalo Starbucks locations late last year.

“I thought it was super empowering for the working class and young people especially,” said Cornetta. “The last few years haven’t been great for a lot of people.”

By unionizing, she said, she and her young co-workers can exert some influence over their working lives.

The Seattle-based coffee giant has yet to enter negotiations for a contract, as is the case for most of the stores that organized over the past year.  

“I do have hope that it will actually improve the conditions and pay,” Cornetta said. “We just have to be a little patient."

Union deli worker with UFCW Local 342 at Stop & Shop in Medford

Maerz never intended to stay at her grocery store job for long when she picked up a part-time shift in 1989.

She took the job at a Grand Union supermarket to help pay for college tuition. Employees at the store were members of UFCW Local 342.

Maerz, who earned her degree in accounting, said at the time her family didn’t have a positive opinion on unions.

“In the beginning I really didn’t think much of unions,” she said.

But after being offered a full-time position in the deli at nearly double her part-time wages three months into the job — a jump from $5 to $9.50 an hour at the time — she said she quickly changed her mind.  

Ever since, Maerz, a shop steward, said she’s been a vocal supporter of her union, and is thankful for the pay rates and health insurance benefits the union was able to negotiate.  

“I would never think of going into another company in the retail field without a union because I see how workers are treated,” she said.  

Fieldworker with RWDSU/UFCW Local 338 at Palmer and Paumanok vineyards in Riverhead and Aquebogue

Menjivar moved to Long Island in the mid-'90s from Manhattan to work in vineyards on the East End.

Now he is among the first farmworkers in the state to become unionized. Until 2019, state law prohibited them from unionizing.  

“We didn’t know there’s a union that can help us to make sure we’re respected by our bosses,” Menjivar said in Spanish.

He arrived in New York from El Salvador in 1994 “looking for a better life,” after working as a carpenter in his home country.

Menjivar said he's content working on vineyards, but hopes his union can get more benefits for him and his co-workers, such as securing a contract that provides warm clothes to work in the winter.

“A union is better,” he said. “We were scared before because we could get fired. Now, little by little, the scariness goes away.”

With Keldy Ortiz

Union membership on Long Island surpassed pre-pandemic levels last year, bucking a long-term national trend of continued decline and outpacing New York City, a new report shows. The data comes amid a surge of union organizing efforts locally and nationally, particularly by workers in retail, traditionally a nonunion industry.  

Last year, an estimated 26.5% of employed Long Islanders, or 336,246 workers, were in a union, according to a Hofstra University report released this week. Membership on the Island was 24.5%, or 328,916 workers, in 2019, according to the report, which calculated membership estimates using data from the Current Population Survey, a report produced by the Census Bureau and the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“The fact that Long Island has managed to hold fairly steady with its unionization and actually increase union membership is a really interesting sign of resilience,” said report author Gregory DeFreitas, Hofstra economics professor and director of the university’s Center for the Study of Labor and Democracy.

DeFreitas said Long Island has historically maintained its membership rate at around 25%, due in large part to Nassau and Suffolk's high number of unionized government workers. Between 2019 and 2021, an average of 16.1% of private sector employees on the Island were in a union, compared to 68.1% of public sector workers, according to his analysis. 

Among the factors contributing to the Island's increased union membership has been the growth of sectors with a historically strong union presence, like construction, health care and public education, DeFreitas said. 

But he said the growth does not suggest that "unions are sweeping across the Island," and that even during a tight labor market that favors jobseekers — the region's  unemployment rate was 3.3% in July — the overall trend in the United States has been shrinking membership.

Nationally, the rate of union membership has been steadily declining since the early '80s when roughly 1 in 5 American workers were unionized. The rate was 10.3% in 2021, equal to its pre-pandemic level, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Membership rates had ticked up slightly, both on the Island and nationally, in 2020 because pandemic job losses were concentrated among nonunion workers, boosting the union percentage. 

In New York City, union membership was 20.5% in 2021, or 689,000 workers, up slightly from a historic low of 19.8% in 2019, the Hofstra report showed. While the city's rate has dropped significantly from 35.5% in 1986, the Island's unionization rate has been more stable and over the past five years, "Long Island has managed to have a higher fraction of its workforce unionized than the famous union town that is New York City,” DeFreitas said.

Earnings for union workers in the New York City/Long Island metro area are typically 12% to 13% higher than nonunion pay — even after controlling for education, job experience and other relevant characteristics, his analysis found.

An 'essential' shift

The Hofstra report comes out against the backdrop of new union activity sparked by the demands of retail, warehouse and service workers deemed essential during the pandemic. Recognizing the critical role they played in the nation's economy during the worst of the crisis, many workers are pushing for more say in their workplaces.

Baristas at 220 Starbucks locations, including three on Long Island, have voted to unionize in recent months. Workers at an Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island with about 4,500 full-time employees became the first in the nation to unionize one of the ecommerce giant’s facilities in April. In early August, employees at a Trader Joe's in Minneapolis became the second of the grocery chain's locations to unionize. Last week, workers at a Chipotle in Lansing, Michigan, voted for a union.

Even the "knights" and "squires" who work at a Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament location in New Jersey unionized this summer.

Additionally, farm workers at Pindar Vineyards in Peconic, Palmer Vineyards in Riverhead and Paumanok Vineyards in Aquebogue are among the first in the state to have union representation.

“The pandemic has shown workers their true worth,” said John Durso, president of the Long Island Federation of Labor AFL-CIO, which represents workers in more than 160 union locals. 

Durso credits much of the recent union activity to a campaign to unionize workers at an Amazon facility in Bessemer, Alabama, last year. 

“They lit the fire,” he said.

While that union push ultimately failed, Durso said it gave workers the confidence needed to organize their own workplaces.

“Workers around the country were inspired by what these people did,” he said.

Additionally, Durso said the National Labor Relations Board under the Biden administration has a greater commitment to ensuring a "level playing field" between labor and business during disputes.

Chris Smalls, 34, a lead organizer behind the successful union push at Amazon's JFK8 fulfillment center in Staten Island, said the public has become more supportive of workers over the last two years. 

“The pandemic definitely exposed a lot about the working conditions for the essential workers in this country," said Smalls, president and founder of the independent Amazon Labor Union. “A lot more people are paying attention to labor."

Smalls said the pandemic was "a catalyst for what’s been going on" with many workers in lower-paid jobs. "Being deemed essential workers means we should be paid as such and treated as such," he said. 

Younger workers leading

Since April, workers at Starbucks stores in Massapequa, Westbury and Farmingville have unionized, with workers at a Great Neck location narrowly voting against unionizing.

Those local organizing efforts have largely been led by younger workers.

That’s no coincidence, said labor organizing expert Patricia Campos-Medina, co-director of the New York State AFL-CIO/Union Leadership Institute at Cornell University.

“The new organizing is happening with young workers and workers of color,” Campos-Medina said.  “They are the ones who have been in a precarious situation at work. They have never known a full-time job in many cases, they have never known a job with benefits.”

Millions of manufacturing jobs left the country following the 1993 passage of NAFTA, eroding what had historically been a major source of union strength, she said. In their place came lower-paid service jobs with few benefits and no collective bargaining agreements in place.

It was a status quo that consumers accepted in many cases as a trade-off for cheaper-priced goods and services, Campos-Medina said. Over the last two years, that trade-off has been challenged, she said.

“There was not a recognition that the work that these lower-wage workers did was essential,” she said. “That shifted during the pandemic.”

The recent spate of union activity comes at a time when American’s support for unions is at its highest in over half a century.

In a Gallup poll released Tuesday, 71% of Americans said they supported unions, the highest level since 1965. In 2019, 64% of Americans said they supported unions. 

But opponents argue that private sector unions disrupt business’ ability to adapt quickly.

“Their operational flexibility goes down substantially because there are dozens of situations where they suddenly need to get permission from a union to change how they operate,” said Ken Girardin, a fellow at the Empire Center for Public Policy, a conservative think tank in Albany.

In addition to the financial costs, Girardin said elected officials' support of local labor organizing can make companies wary.

“The business community sees politicians giving these open-ended, uninformed endorsements for labor’s position, and it makes [businesses] wonder what sort of treatment they’re in store for if their workers unionize or consider unionizing," he said. 

As a result, businesses may think twice before relocating to or expanding into an area like Long Island, Girardin said.

Ryan Stanton, executive director of the Long Island Federation of Labor, said younger workers are likely to continue the trend of organizing their workplaces as years of wage stagnation and high levels of college debt have made them frustrated with working conditions.

“We have a highly educated workforce that’s fed up,” said Stanton, 34, who took over the top post at the labor organization in January after longtime leader Roger Clayman, 71, stepped down.

“They’re skilled, they’re educated, they’re knowledgeable, and they have an economic framework that’s been rewritten while they were following the proposed path to prosperity," he said. 

“The nature of work may change, however, ultimately people’s desire and need to provide for their family doesn’t go away," he said. 

Union workers tell their stories

Murugan Naidu, a union pharmacist at medical marijuana dispensary MedMen...

Murugan Naidu, a union pharmacist at medical marijuana dispensary MedMen in New Hyde Park. Credit: Jeff Bachner

Murugan Naidu, 49, Roslyn

Pharmacist with RWDSU/UFCW Local 338 (Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union/United Food and Commercial Workers) at MedMen, a medical cannabis dispensary in Lake Success

Naidu said he used to think unions were more burdensome than they were worth.

“Fast forward, now I’m working in an industry where I can tell people … ‘unions are great,’” said Naidu, a shop steward.  

Before joining the cannabis industry in 2018, Naidu worked as a retail pharmacist in independent, nonchain pharmacies. He worked 10 to 12 hours a day and rarely had time for a lunch break.  

“I was just burnt out,” he said.

The pay and workflow at MedMen were an improvement, but he said the high cost of the company’s employee health plan was a downside. The following year, though, Local 338 unionized his dispensary.  

“When the union got involved, in terms of the health care, that was a slam dunk,” he said. Now with access to a retirement plan, paid time off, a limit of 8-hour workdays and a deductible-free health care plan, he said he can’t imagine working anywhere else.  

“When you have union backing, your job turns into a career,” Naidu said.

Union organizer Sam Cornetta outside the Farmingville Starbucks.

Union organizer Sam Cornetta outside the Farmingville Starbucks. Credit: Morgan Campbell

Sam Cornetta, 22, Farmingville

Union barista with Workers United at Starbucks in Farmingville

Cornetta had no experience with unions before she started to organize her co-workers earlier this year.  

But after they voted 13-1 in July to join the Workers United New York New Jersey Regional Board, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union, the full-time Stony Brook University senior said she’s hopeful about what a union can do for her and her co-workers.  

Cornetta said she was inspired by successful unionizing efforts at two Buffalo Starbucks locations late last year.

“I thought it was super empowering for the working class and young people especially,” said Cornetta. “The last few years haven’t been great for a lot of people.”

By unionizing, she said, she and her young co-workers can exert some influence over their working lives.

The Seattle-based coffee giant has yet to enter negotiations for a contract, as is the case for most of the stores that organized over the past year.  

“I do have hope that it will actually improve the conditions and pay,” Cornetta said. “We just have to be a little patient."

Deli worker and union member Cathy Maerz behind the counter at Stop...

Deli worker and union member Cathy Maerz behind the counter at Stop & Shop in Medford. Credit: Morgan Campbell

Cathy Maerz, 59, Medford

Union deli worker with UFCW Local 342 at Stop & Shop in Medford

Maerz never intended to stay at her grocery store job for long when she picked up a part-time shift in 1989.

She took the job at a Grand Union supermarket to help pay for college tuition. Employees at the store were members of UFCW Local 342.

Maerz, who earned her degree in accounting, said at the time her family didn’t have a positive opinion on unions.

“In the beginning I really didn’t think much of unions,” she said.

But after being offered a full-time position in the deli at nearly double her part-time wages three months into the job — a jump from $5 to $9.50 an hour at the time — she said she quickly changed her mind.  

Ever since, Maerz, a shop steward, said she’s been a vocal supporter of her union, and is thankful for the pay rates and health insurance benefits the union was able to negotiate.  

“I would never think of going into another company in the retail field without a union because I see how workers are treated,” she said.  

Roque Menjivar, a fieldworker at Palmer and Paumanok vineyards, is...

Roque Menjivar, a fieldworker at Palmer and Paumanok vineyards, is a member of RWDSU/UFCW Local 338. Credit: Margaret V. Palmquist

Roque Menjivar, 65, Riverhead

Fieldworker with RWDSU/UFCW Local 338 at Palmer and Paumanok vineyards in Riverhead and Aquebogue

Menjivar moved to Long Island in the mid-'90s from Manhattan to work in vineyards on the East End.

Now he is among the first farmworkers in the state to become unionized. Until 2019, state law prohibited them from unionizing.  

“We didn’t know there’s a union that can help us to make sure we’re respected by our bosses,” Menjivar said in Spanish.

He arrived in New York from El Salvador in 1994 “looking for a better life,” after working as a carpenter in his home country.

Menjivar said he's content working on vineyards, but hopes his union can get more benefits for him and his co-workers, such as securing a contract that provides warm clothes to work in the winter.

“A union is better,” he said. “We were scared before because we could get fired. Now, little by little, the scariness goes away.”

With Keldy Ortiz

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