BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – This past year turned out to be a critical time for the U.S. labor movement. Research points to an upturn in strike activity and a push to reform antiquated laws that favor employers, not the workers.

The federal Bureau of Labor statistics only documents large worker strikes, involving 1,000 or more workers for an entire shift. The IRL Worker Institute says that excludes many strikes and can misinform policy makers on the true scope of the movement.

In 2021, ILR Worker Institute documented 265 work stoppages involving some 140,000 employees.

The research center found that these work stoppages “increased considerably” in October and November 2021.

While ILR did find the uptick of union activity in those months, the level of strike activity did not match the strength as prior eras.

So, what does all this mean? That’s to be determined, said local labor experts.

Locally, the union efforts of Starbucks employees had a ripple effect that led to other stores in other states following Workers’ United organizing efforts.

Before that, Spot Coffee stores unionized.

On the other hand, in 2019, workers at Tesla, a huge factory by the Buffalo River that was built and equipped with almost a billion dollars in taxpayer money failed to gain any momentum on a unionization effort.

Erin Hatton, professor of Sociology at the University at Buffalo, said the Covid-19 pandemic, and the economic crisis it created, resulted in workers leaving their jobs in growing numbers.

“There’s definitely something going on,” Hatton said. “It’s part of a big picture. This push for unions in Starbucks and SPOT before covid, also in Amazon warehouses. There’s a lot of different places where we’ve seen new vigor and energy around union organizing.”

Matthew Dimick, a law professor at University at Buffalo School of Law, said another interesting observation is how workers did not return to work when juiced-up unemployment benefits dried up.

“And I’ve read interviews with workers saying that they’re just sick and tired of the way they were getting treated and it just wasn’t worth it,” Dimick said.

“So, they kind of had a bit of an option. They didn’t have to go back to work. People are spending more time looking for better jobs, and so I think some of that, too, was motivating recent activity.”

Still, unions have not regained the power that they had in the 1940s and 1950s when growth in the manufacturing sector exploded. It seems now, experts said, that workers in the service industry are building that rush for change.

“Especially in the food and hospitality industry, the standards are very low.” Dimick said. “I think workers … they feel like they’ve had enough, and they’re ready to fight back. So, yeah, I think the opportunities are bigger than they have been in a long time.”

A big challenge that unions have to overcome is how the federal labor law is very business friendly, Hatton said.

“Employers have a lot of leeway to legally pushback and quash unions,” Hatton said.

News 4 Investigates reported on allegations against Starbucks for deploying what workers described as union-busting tactics against them.

In addition, Hatton said “an incredible power” employers exert is hiring replacement workers, which happened at Mercy Hospital in South Buffalo. Unions have also spent millions on consultants and law firms to assist in poking holes through weak federal labor laws that haven’t been updated in decades.

Even when employers use illegal methods to quash unions, and get caught, the punishment does not seem to fit the violation because of a weak penalty structure in federal labor law.

“They post a poster saying they won’t do it again, saying workers have the right to unionize, but they get away with it,” Hatton said. “And so, absolutely, labor laws should be reformed and even more importantly, it should be reformed to have teeth.”

That means hitting employers with fines when they engage in illegal union-busting activity, which current law does not allow. Experts said typically the National Labor Relations Boar’s toughest penalty is to force employers to pay restitution to workers in the form of back pay.

As a result, “illegal employer activities in the face of a union campaign are rampant,” Hatton said.

Dimick said labor law reform “always seems to take a backseat in Congress.”

“I think politicians are a little leery of empowering unions,” Dimick said.

President Joe Biden’s Administration vowed to call on Congress to pass the Richard L. Trumka Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act and the Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act, “ensuring that more private-sector workers and many more public-sector workers nationwide have a genuine right to organize and bargain collectively.”

“Let’s pass the Pro Act,” Biden said in his State of the Union address on March 1.  “When a majority of workers want to form a union they shouldn’t be able to be stopped. When we invest in our workers we build an economy from the bottom up and the middle out. Together we can do something that we haven’t done in a long time, build a better America.”

Wilma Liebman, former chairwoman of the National Labor Relations Board, said the road to reform has been a bumpy one. Therefore, unions may not be as healthy as they once were, she said.

Liebman said there needs to be a process for employees to get to a union vote much more quickly without all the anti-union campaigns and coercion that is allowed to occur.

“We need stronger definitions of employees who are covered by the law,” she said.

For example, since 1935 when the law was enacted, farm and domestic workers have been excluded. Since 1947, independent contractors, such as Uber drivers, have been excluded.

“The labor law hasn’t been changed since 1947,” Liebman said. “When you think about how much our economy, our society in the workplace have changed since 1947 and we’re still basically operating with this Depression Era, New Deal Labor law. To some extent, the basic protections are as relevant and vital as they always were but kind of the model of the workplace that underlies this statute was the factory-style factory.”

Dan Telvock is an award-winning investigative producer and reporter who has been part of the News 4 team since 2018. See more of his work here and follow him on Twitter.