Amazon and Starbucks union votes are small gains – but important – for American labor

After years of unsuccessful organizational efforts and a long, steady decline in the number of employees in the private sector represented by unions, two grassroots emerging groups have won recent victories at two of the nation’s largest employers: Amazon and Starbucks.

Both efforts represent only a small fraction of the total employees of these companies. But they also represent a sea change in the general conversation about American labor – and they could inspire more union efforts.

“I think it’s very important, even though it’s a small percentage of the workforce so far,” said Alexander Colvin, dean of Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations School. “I think it’s a real shift we’re seeing.”

The National Labor Relations Board reports that from October 2021 to last month, 1,174 petitions were filed with the agency seeking union representation. This is an increase of 57% compared to the same period the year before – and the highest level of trade union organization in 10 years.

The Amazon and Starbucks victories are important to union organizing efforts, Colvin said. This sentiment is repeated by Chris Smalls, who went from a fired Amazon employee to the leader of the Amazon Labor Union, which recently became the first union to win a representation vote at one of Amazon’s facilities.

Since the vote at Amazon’s plant in Staten Island, New York, where Smalls used to work, he has spoken to workers at 50 other Amazon facilities across the country who want to hold their own union votes. Another poll is scheduled for later this month at another Staten Island Amazon facility.

“I think what we did … is a catalyst for a revolution with Amazon workers, just like Starbucks’ union efforts,” he said in an interview with CNN + last week. “We want the same domino effect.”

Domino effect

Over at Starbucks, workers in 17 stores from Boston to their hometown of Seattle since December have voted to be represented by Starbucks Workers United – a separate grassroots union effort that has applied to hold polls in more than 100 additional stores.

Starbucks has about 235,000 employees in 9,000 company-run US stores. Fewer than 1,000 workers in the 17 stores have voted for the union. It’s similar to Amazon, where about 8,300 hourly wage earners were eligible to vote at the Staten Island facility. It’s not even 1% of the company’s U.S. workforce of 1.1 million employees, including both warehouse and office workers.

But the votes have grabbed headlines, and Labor Board figures suggest the effort Amazon (AMZN) and Starbucks (SBUX) can inspire others.
Trade union leaders say they not only want better pay and benefits, but also improved job security, staffing levels and safety measures in the workplace – as well as better working conditions in general and a voice in how workers are treated. Employers generally tend to argue that workers are better off without any “third party” between workers and management.
“While not all of the partners who support union formation work with external union forces, the critical point is that I do not believe that conflict, division and disagreement – which have been the focus of union organization – benefit Starbucks or our partners,” the CEO said. Howard Schultz in a message to the company’s employees, referred to as “partners”, shortly after resuming the post of director of the company.
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Still, the effort seems to have an effect. Starbucks recently announced that it was suspending the repurchase of its shares, a move that would primarily benefit its shareholders to invest more in its employees. The company also introduced two wage increases in the last 18 months, saying in October that it would raise wages to at least $ 15 an hour for baristas, with most hourly wage earners averaging nearly $ 17 an hour this summer.

Covid-era changes

Many of the unions’ demands stem from the difficulty of working during the pandemic over the past two years, said John Logan, a professor of labor and employment studies at San Francisco State University.

“Part of what’s changed is that we’re just in another moment, [with] Frontline workers feel they were not rewarded or treated with respect during the pandemic, “Logan said.” I think something has really changed in the consciousness of young workers. “

The very tight labor market – with more job openings than there are job seekers and a record number of workers quitting – makes it easier to organize today, Colvin said. While workers do not want to lose a job in the company they are trying to organize, the fact that other jobs are available may make them more willing to take that risk.
Amazon is filing its appeal for historic union membership in New York City's warehouse
A more union-friendly NLRB under the Biden administration is also a factor. Amazon appealed the vote on the Staten Island facility, claiming that the works council acted “unfairly and inappropriately” and delayed the investigation of what it calls “junk” unfair work practice fees.

In a statement, Kayla Blado, NLRB’s press secretary, said the board “is an independent federal agency that Congress has accused of enforcing national labor law” and its enforcement actions against Amazon are “compatible with it.”

“Things are changing for the better for the workers. They have implemented means that make it easier to organize,” said Amazon’s Labor Union president Smalls. “We still have a long way to go again.”

Perhaps the biggest potential change under the new, more employee-friendly NRLB is a recent statement by its Advocate General that management should no longer be able to require workers to attend presentations on the company’s union position, arguing that it violates workers’ rights to refrain from organizing related activities. Such meetings are central to management’s efforts to thwart trade union organization efforts.

Smalls called the mandatory meetings one of the biggest challenges the union faced. “They have 24-hour access to the workers. You can’t compare and compete with that,” he said.

The opinion does not change the current law, which allows for these meetings, although Colvin said it would not surprise him if the Democrat-controlled NLRB votes to change it. From there, it’s a likely court battle that could go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which has already indicated it is far less in favor of unions.

Decline in union membership

Even with the recent victories for trade unions, several long-term trends are still in place, which have reduced trade union membership to only 7% of private sector employees over the last 50 years. One major reason is the shift from production to jobs in the service sector like those at Starbucks and Amazon, Colvin said.

Other factors contributing to declining union membership include the rise of non-union competitors, automation, building facilities in less union-friendly southern states, and relocating production abroad.

Finding ways to organize with Amazon and Starbucks and other service companies in areas such as technology, finance and retail is a key to reversing these long-term trends, experts say.

It’s an uphill battle for unions to win new members, but that does not mean they can not succeed, said Erik Loomis, a work historian and associate professor at the University of Rhode Island.

“Amazon is the GM or US Steel of our time – and it took decades to organize these places,” he said last month before Amazon’s poll results were known. “There had to be many different types of campaigns led by different ideologies, different ways of organizing … before that kind of business was finally organized successfully.”

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