Over the past year, I’ve felt some serious whiplash about what’s been happening on the labor scene. Early last year, the surge of union organizing brought huge promise and hope, but then, bam, I felt huge frustration as those efforts slammed into a wall of anti-union opposition from corporate America.
To my mind, some inspiring developments that took place early last year made this the most promising time for unions and workers in decades, probably since the 1930s. Here I’m talking about the string of unionization victories at Starbucks and the hugely inspiring union win at Amazon’s 8,300-employee warehouse in Staten Island. I have long thought that if there’s any workplace that would be impossible to unionize, it‘s an Amazon warehouse, where organizers would have to communicate with 5,000 or more workers who barely have time to go to the bathroom, let alone talk about forming a union.
And since we’re talking about promise and hope, let’s not forget the inspiring union wins at Trader Joe’s, Apple, REI, and Chipotle, as well as at museums, newsrooms, video game companies, nonprofits, universities, political campaigns, and even legislators’ offices.
With 20–20 hindsight, we can now say that conditions were ripe for such a labor surge. Many of the workers we hailed as “essential,” as “heroes,” were hugely frustrated and angry about how they were treated during the pandemic. Workers making $10, $12, and $14 an hour had risked their lives day after day in the stores, restaurants, warehouses and meat-packing plants where they worked, while white-collar employees making $150,000 or more a year worked safely from home. Meanwhile, far too many companies showed disrespect toward their “essential” workers by failing to pay them any hero or hazard pay for risking their lives day in and day out. These frontline workers were hungry for respect and hungry to see their jobs improved—they wanted higher pay, better treatment, and a true voice on the job. They saw unionization as the best route to achieve those goals.
Organizers Ramp Up
The 2018–19 teacher strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, Los Angeles, and Chicago helped set the table for this surge in labor interest. Those strikes made many Americans see that unions can help not just union members, but also the broader community. These unions were bargaining for the common good.
Another factor behind today’s labor surge is that workers can see and feel America’s increased income inequality. They see all these TV ads for BMWs, Cadillacs, and European river cruises, and they wonder why can’t they begin to afford any of those things. They know about billionaires Howard Schultz and Jeff Bezos and their superyachts. Workers want their fair share.
The time was also ripe for unionizing because the unemployment rate has been so low, making workers feel more secure and empowered. Plus, it helps that Joe Biden is the most pro-union president in forever (even if Biden hasn’t achieved everything labor advocates might have wanted).
There are other factors behind today’s surge in union interest, especially among younger workers. I call one of those factors the Bernie effect. With his presidential runs, Bernie Sanders has inspired millions of young Americans and made them think and care about economic justice and labor unions. Also, a lot of young people saw their parents struggling, their families struggling, during the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009, and they sensed that something was fundamentally awry with the American economy. Moreover, many young workers are upset by hard-to-afford rents, mountains of student debt, and the notion that they’ll be the first generation in American history to do worse economically than their parents. They see unions as a way to help fix those problems.
Early last year, I was talking to Richard Bensinger, former organizing director for the AFL–CIO and more recently the organizing guru who has overseen the Starbucks unionization drive. Back then, the Starbucks organizing effort had so much momentum that I told Richard, “I bet that you unionize 500 Starbucks by the end of 2022.”
I was over-optimistic—I didn’t realize how fierce Starbucks’ anti-union onslaught would be—but still, 300 Starbucks have been unionized since December 2021. That ain’t bad.
Corporations Push Back
Fast forward to the second half of 2022, when the whiplash, the backlash, and the frustration came. In recent months, we’ve seen a huge, systematic effort by some of the nation’s best-known corporations—Starbucks, Amazon, Trader Joe’s, Apple—to crush the surge in unionization. Those of us who closely follow labor have long said that corporations see a bright green light to violate the law when they’re fighting against unionization because the penalties are so minimal. Under federal labor law, corporations can’t be fined one cent when, for instance, they fire ten worker activists in illegal retaliation for pushing to unionize or close a store that’s about to unionize. Over the past year, the surge in union-busting is making clear to many Americans that “respected” companies like Starbucks violate the nation’s labor laws with impunity. This is opening a lot of people’s eyes about how tilted the playing field is against workers when they seek to unionize.
At first, Starbucks’ anti-union efforts appeared to be feeble and misfiring. Starbucks kept losing unionization votes at its cafés in blowouts like 22–0, 19–1 and 23–3. But its anti-union tactics eventually started to bite and seriously scare workers. Starbucks has fired more than 150 pro-union workers, closed a dozen cafés that had unionized, and made a frightening announcement that it would give new raises and benefits to its nonunion workers but not its unionized workers. (Starbucks maintains that it has not engaged in any illegal activities in fighting against unionization, even when the NLRB has filed more than eighty complaints against Starbucks, alleging more than 500 illegal anti-union actions, and even when several administrative law judges have ruled that Starbucks broke the law.)
Elsewhere on the anti-union front, Chipotle suddenly shuttered the very first Chipotle store that sought to unionize—in Augusta, Maine. Trader Joe’s closed its lone wine shop in New York City just when workers there were about to file a petition to unionize. Apple appears to be deliberately dragging its feet in contract talks with its two unionized stores, and has held anti-union meetings at its roughly 270 U.S. stores, telling its workers that if their store unionizes, they may be at a disadvantage. (Chipotle, Trader Joe’s and Apple maintain they haven’t engaged in any illegal, anti-union actions.)
Unfortunately, there are no easy solutions, no silver bullets to deal with all this union-busting. At Amazon, the historic victory on Staten Island is unfortunately starting to look like the exception, rather than the beginning of a big, promising wave. As we saw in Albany, Bessemer, and a second Staten Island warehouse, Amazon floods the zone with expensive, manipulative, smooth-talking anti-union consultants to defeat unionization.
At Chipotle, to date, only one restaurant has unionized. At Apple, only two stores have unionized, at REI only three have, and at Trader Joe’s only three. The young workers at these locations are trying their best to organize, but corporate America is doing its utmost to scare and intimidate workers, to make workers feel that they must run a dangerous gauntlet to unionize—and to convey to them that if they do unionize, those companies might delay things for years before they ever agree to a first contract that improves pay and benefits.
The Path Forward for Labor?
Some days I feel acute frustration about how last year’s inspiring momentum has slowed. I keep wondering what could have been done—and what can still be done—to sustain and expand today’s wave of unionization.
Young workers have certainly stepped up—at Starbucks, Trader Joe’s, Amazon, Apple, REI and Chipotle. The NLRB’s general counsel, Jennifer Abruzzo, has certainly stepped up, repeatedly accusing companies of acting unlawfully to stifle unionization.
I often ask whether the nation’s labor unions could have and should have stepped up more. Should they have lent 100 or 200 organizers to the Starbucks, Amazon, and Trader Joe’s efforts? Or would that have seemed too top-down? Should unions have launched major organizing drives at McDonalds, Chipotle, and/or Pizza Hut to try to turn fast-food organizing into a nationwide prairie fire? Should unions have run full-page ads in the New York Times and Washington Post saying “Grande Union-Buster Starbucks is full of it!” when it repeatedly maintains it hasn’t engaged in any illegal, anti-union actions?
For labor unions and courageous, young pro-union workers, a huge challenge is figuring out how to outmaneuver and overcome the fierce, multimillion-dollar anti-union campaigns run by Starbucks, Amazon, and other companies. Perhaps Starbucks and Amazon workers and the nation’s unions should join with allies in academia, the arts, the clergy and at civil rights and immigrant groups to hold teach-ins in dozens of cities across the country to educate and mobilize more people about Starbucks’ and Amazon’s anti-union behavior and the benefits of unionizing. Some labor strategists are talking about organizing a boycott against Starbucks—perhaps nationwide, perhaps in ten or twenty deep-blue cities—if it keeps refusing to negotiate with workers at its 300 unionized stores (although the idea of a boycott will no doubt upset some baristas). And some union activists say it’s time to step up the fight against Starbucks by holding huge protests at the company’s Seattle headquarters or by engaging in civil disobedience, perhaps by sitting in or chaining themselves to the front doors of some Starbucks stores around the nation.
About twenty years ago, the tiny Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida persuaded college students and religious groups across the United States to boycott and pressure Taco Bell, and in that way, it successfully got giant Taco Bell to cry uncle and join a historic effort to improve wages and conditions for the farmworkers who pick produce in the restaurant giant’s supply chain. I wonder why the nation’s much larger labor movement can’t do something similar with Starbucks. And then another fast-food company, and then another.
I often wonder whether President Biden and his administration could do more to boost today’s surge of interest in unions. It’s unfortunate that the PRO Act, which Biden backed, had little chance of passage because of a GOP filibuster. But I wonder: Should Biden step up and speak out against the illegal union-busting at Starbucks and Amazon? Bernie Sanders certainly stepped up and brought a lot of attention to the workers’ cause by inviting Howard Schultz to a Senate hearing and calling him the twenty-first century’s leading union-buster.
Here’s another idea to boost unionization. Perhaps Brandon Johnson, the newly elected mayor of Chicago and a longtime union organizer with the Chicago Teachers Union, should (while having much else on his plate) dedicate himself to spurring a huge wave of unionization across Chicago: at Staples, Targets, and McDonald’s, and at downtown restaurants, and on Michigan Avenue at Nike, Apple, and Pottery Barn. If such a large-scale union wave could succeed in Chicago, maybe it could spread to Milwaukee, Detroit, Minneapolis, and/or Cleveland.
As organizers often say, if you don’t try, there’s no way you can succeed. I do see a lot of folks trying. AFSCME in Chicago is systematically unionizing one famous museum after another. The CWA is pushing hard to unionize video game companies, and the NewsGuild and Writers Guild East have unionized dozens of newsrooms, while the AFT, UAW, and SEIU are unionizing faculty and grad student workers at universities across the country. Building trades unions and manufacturing unions are maneuvering to make sure that many of the jobs created under the infrastructure, CHIPS, and climate change legislation will be good, union jobs. Every week or so, the Teamsters and Unite Here announce new unionization victories.
Then there’s the pivotal role that Wisconsin’s labor unions played in that state’s recent Supreme Court election. And unions in Michigan helped Democrats win a political trifecta that resulted in the Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, together with he Democratic State House and State Senate, repealing that state’s right-to-work law—a huge win for labor.
There’s a whole lot of energy and effort out there. But the labor movement still needs to figure out how to keep up the momentum—and figure out how to do more to support all the young workers seeking to unionize some of America’s best-known companies. Unions need to figure out, and soon, how to help sustain and build the current wave. With some serious strategizing and resources, I believe it can be done. Si, se puede.