New union drives are spiking, but the overall number of workers represented by unions hasn’t budged in New York City or nationwide, according to an annual report released by the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies ahead of Labor Day.

New union elections surged nationwide during the second quarter of 2022, up to 685 drives, a 49% increase from the previous quarter, and nearly three times as many as the second quarter of 2020 —  the depths of COVID-19 when union elections unsurprisingly came to a grinding halt. The number of recent drives, however, was on par with levels seen in 2016 and lower than many years before that.

Though unionization efforts have lurched into the foreground with a boost in media attention and public sympathy around historic campaigns like the Amazon Labor Union’s successful drive on Staten Island, the overall number of people who have joined unions over the last year-and-a-half remains relatively low. Between January 2021 and June 2022, new unionized workers accounted for less than 1% of all workers in New York City, the report found.

Still, New York City led the nation in rates of newly unionized workers, followed by Seattle and Boston, according to the report.

Ruth Milkman, a sociologist of labor and labor studies at CUNY who co-authored the report, pointed out that with the exception of Amazon, many of the shops that have voted to unionize in recent months had relatively few workers. Around 4,362 Starbucks workers have now voted to join unions nationwide, the report found, slightly more than 1% of the company’s estimated 383,000 employees.

“It’s a drop in the bucket, essentially,” Milkman said. “Now it's possible that this is the beginning of something [bigger], but right now it's not there.”

The share of workers represented by unions remains at historic lows, with 21.4% of workers in New York City and 10.2% of workers nationwide.

Unlike in prior years, however, this year’s report found a greater share of union elections ended with a successful union vote. More than half of union elections in the second quarter of 2022 were successful, a higher success rate that had been tracked going back decades.

Labor experts and historians like Milkman are quick to point out that jumps in unionization have historically happened in waves, and the proliferation of union drives could continue to spread and lead to overall increases in unionized workforce further down the line. But workers still face a hard road even after a successful union vote.

“Winning an election is actually only the beginning,” Milkman said.

Amazon, for example, challenged the ALU’s victory before an administrative judge, with the National Labor Relations Board arguing both the NLRB and the ALU unfairly tipped the scales in the union’s favor. This week an administrative judge ruled in favor of the ALU and tossed out the objections entirely, though the company has promised to appeal the decision and is still refusing to bargain with the nascent union.

Starbucks has deployed another tactic following union votes at its cafes: closing them, as it’s done at locations in Seattle; Kansas City, Missouri; and Ithaca.

“About half of new bargaining units never agree on a first contract. In other words, it just all falls apart,” Milkman said. “Will these elections lead to lasting collective bargaining agreements? In most cases, the employers are trying to make the answer 'no.'”