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The changing face of America’s unions

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People hold signs during a protest in support of Amazon workers in Union Square, New York on February 20, 2021.

People hold signs during a protest in support of Amazon workers in Union Square, New York on February 20, 2021. KENA BETANCUR/AFP via Getty Images

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About 10% of the American workforce belonged to a union in 2020. That’s way down from about a third in 1970, but unions are making gains lately — and not where you might expect.

Amazon warehouse workers are organizing right now in Alabama. Hundreds of employees at Google’s parent company have formed a union. The past few years have seen a wave of unionization in media, including — full disclosure — the staff at Marketplace. So what’s going on?

“America’s workplaces are pretty much the least democratic spaces that we have in this country. People think they have far more rights on the job than they actually do,” said Lane Windham, associate director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University. “So unions basically bring that democracy with a small ‘d’ back into the workplace.”

With more of a voice, Windham said, unionized workers make more money, enjoy more job security and are more likely to have benefits.

On today’s show, we’ll talk with Windham, who wrote the book “Knocking on Labor’s Door: Union Organizing in the 1970s and the Roots of a New Economic Divide,” about the state of the labor movement in this country. What happens to the blue-collar workers who typified the strong unions of yesteryear? And with Joe Biden in the White House, is the union wave just starting?

Later, we’ll hear from listeners who are buying their first home, working at the Port of Los Angeles and returning to in-person teaching after a year. That last listener sent us a photo of his desk, with the calendar still at March 13, 2020.

Josh’s desk at his classroom in Virginia.

When you’re done listening, tell your Echo device to “make me smart” for our daily explainers. This week we’ve got NFTs, Robinhood and March Madness. Also, don’t forget to subscribe to our newsletter! You can find the latest issue here.

Here are links to everything we talked about on the show today:

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