Union membership in the United States has been in decline for decades, but there has recently been a potential shift. Seventeen companies’ Starbucks locations in the United States have voted to form a union since the end of last year, and another 170 or so are expected to vote in the coming weeks and months – all in an industry where union is rare. And in early April, workers at a Staten Island Amazon warehouse also voted for a union, making them the first to organize in a company known for stopping organizing. These successful polls are historic, and they are an optimistic sign for unions in America.
But while the hard-won union votes may be the most cinematic part, it’s not the end of the story. The lengthy and difficult process of negotiating a contract that benefits the workers has only just begun – and its conclusion is far from certain.
To move forward, the union must sign a contract with the company, the union and the company must agree on this, and then the union votes on whether they also agree. The process can take anywhere from six months to a couple of years – and some do not end up with a contract at all. About 30 percent of unions do not enter into a contract within three years.
The unions representing Starbucks and Amazon workers have gotten off to a good start because their goals are mostly clear. The Amazon Labor Union (ALU) has said its main goal is to raise wages to $ 30 an hour, give workers longer breaks and mostly eliminate mandatory overtime. The first Starbucks Workers United union at the Elmwood Avenue store in Buffalo, New York, has been in contract negotiations since Jan. 31; it has so far suggested “just cause” firing, better health and safety protocols and allow customers to tip on credit cards. Future proposals include better wages and benefits.
The hardest part, experts say, will be getting Amazon and Starbucks to agree on contracts. This is not due to a lack of effort on the part of the unions. Rather, unions often face uphill battles with uncooperative companies and toothless labor laws.
Businesses can find a number of ways to get stuck. Amazon is already objecting to the historic Staten Island referendum, accusing the union of, among other things, threatening voters to vote for the union. Starbucks has filed appeals that have delayed union voting, but has said it will respect the bargaining process for those stores that have voted to join the union.
Companies are supposed to negotiate in good faith, but there is no timeline for when that should happen, nor are they forced to accept the contract. “Our law has no mechanism to force management,” Harry Katz, a professor at Cornell University’s School of Labor, told Recode. If the NLRB, the federal body tasked with enforcing labor laws, finds that they are stalling unnecessarily, there is not much it can do.
It is clear why many companies stall: It can cause unions to lose momentum. If years go by without a contract, the workers might wonder what the meaning of the union is at all. In addition, both Amazon and Starbucks are in high-turnover industries where the people who were so eager for union might not be in that job long enough to see the contract through, which could potentially hamper union operations.
The trick for the unions will be to take advantage of collective actions such as strikes, as well as public and political pressure, to try to get these employers to agree to a contract.
The Amazon Labor Union, which was set up to organize the Staten Island Warehouse, is not affiliated with an older union, so it does not have the infrastructure – or cash – from unions that have been collecting dues for years. This means that the union, which has so far been funded by crowdsourced money and pro bono assistance, will itself have to figure out the labyrinthine processes of writing, negotiating and enforcing a contract. Most importantly, its lack of affiliation may hamper workers’ ability to strike. Unlike established unions, ALU does not have a fund to help workers – many of whom earn a low hourly wage and may not have cash reserves – get through a protracted strike in which they would give up their wages.
However, a strike at an 8,000-man warehouse in New York City would not take that long before it was effective, according to Rebecca Givan, a professor at Rutgers’ School of Management and Labor Studies. “It is possible that fairly modest actions can cause significant disruption,” she said, adding that strikes of one hour or one day may be enough to pressure management to agree. It would be very difficult for Amazon to quickly replace striking workers in such a large warehouse.
It is also possible that the Amazon Labor Union could accept formal or informal assistance from an existing union, such as the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which is affiliated with Starbucks’ parent association. Mary Kay Henry, international president of SEIU, told Recode in a statement that her union would “offer the support we can to help Amazon workers struggling for a voice on the job to negotiate a better future.” Teamsters, a union representing warehousing and distribution workers, may also be involved: On Thursday, ALU leaders Christian Smalls and Derrick Palmer met with Sean M. O’Brien, Teamsters’ general president. They discussed resources and help that Teamsters could provide to help them get their first contract with Amazon, according to a Teamsters spokesman. Amazon Labor Union did not respond to requests for comment.
Growing union membership across the United States, even if it is not for their own union, is in the best interests of the unions, according to Givan. “Amazon is a huge threat to the quality of jobs in the shipping and logistics sector, many of which are Teamsters jobs,” she said.
Part of what has made Starbucks and Amazon’s unions successful is their worker-led structure, which has allowed them to largely avoid the criticism that they are outsiders. Starbucks workers themselves negotiate their contracts – not union lawyers. This will most likely also be the case with the Amazon union, which is made up entirely of Amazon workers.
However, the Starbucks union is part of a larger, established union called Workers United. This means that it has many more resources to guide them through writing and negotiating a contract. That union could also help it with a strike fund if it chose to do so. However, Starbucks stores are much smaller than an Amazon store, so a strike in just one of its 9,000 stores would have less impact. It would also be relatively easier to replace 20 or so striking baristas.
Something that could work in union favor is that both Amazon and Starbucks are well-known, customer-facing companies, making it potentially easier for workers to attract political and public boosters.
Politicians from Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) to President Joe Biden have shown support for these union efforts. Public approval of unions is at its highest level since 1965, according to Gallup.
“The whole country is watching, and workers everywhere are watching, and they are judging Amazon and Starbucks by their actions,” Givan said.
Public and political union supporters could help pressure companies to agree to union demands. Perhaps more directly, Starbucks’ own investors have asked the company to remain neutral with unions and quickly enter into collective agreements with stores that organize.
As to whether the recent wave of successful organization and current contract negotiations is enough to turn around the long-declining union membership, Katz said: “I think it will lead to more [organizing] but I do not think it is yet an indication of a massive turnaround. ” He added: “We need more Amazons, we need a lot of Starbucks to get organized. And then we need more signs [of increased unionizing] in the more traditional sectors. ”
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