Labor Day 2022 comes smack in the middle of what looks increasingly like a pivotal year in the history of American labor unions.
The summer saw a steady stream of labor mobilizations. Employees at Trader Joe’s Massachusetts Locations and Minneapolis both voted to unionize. Meanwhile, the Chipotle restaurant chain saw the first of its stores to unionizefollowing a vote by workers at an outlet in Lansing, Michigan.
This follows a wave of successful mobilization efforts at Starbucks and Amazon. The growth of unionized stores at Starbucks in particular has been staggering. From the baristas in Buffalo, New York, became the first in the chain to unionize in December 2021, colleagues from 234 other outlets have followed suit in recent months.
Similarly, the success of an independent Amazon Syndicate – formed in 2020 by Chris Smallsa Fired Amazon employee for protesting what he saw as inadequate COVID-19 safety precautions – forming the retail giant’s first factory to have a unionized workforce inspired others to do the same.
It comes as polls show public support for unions is at its lowest. highest since 1965, with the support of 71% of Americans. There is definitely something going on in the labor movement in 2022.
A different organization
Like a labor movement expert who has observed union campaigns for two decades, what I find almost as striking as the victories is the unconventional nature of the union campaigns.
Workers at Amazon and Trader Joe’s are forming independent unions, while at Starbucks and Chipotle, employees are joining established unions. But that difference aside, the dynamics at play are remarkably similar: campaigns are driven by determined young workers. Essentially, it is bottom-up organizing, rather than being led by formal, seasoned union representatives.
Inspired by the pro-union sentiment of political movements, such as The presidential candidacies of Bernie Sanders, Black Lives Matter and the Democratic Socialists of America, individuals are spearheading workplace reform efforts rather than professional union organizers. Indeed, it would be difficult to find many experienced organizers among recent successful campaigns.
Instead, the campaigns involved a significant degree of “self-organisation” – that is, workers “talking union” to each other in the warehouse and cafes and reaching out to co-workers in other stores in the same city and across the country. This marks a radical change the way the labor movement has traditionally operated, which has tended to be more centralized and led by seasoned union leaders.
A revival of work
Perhaps more important than wins at Starbucks, Amazon, Trader Joe’s and Chipotle themselves is their potential to create a sense of optimism and enthusiasm around union organizing, especially among younger workers.
Elections follow years of union decline in the United Statesboth in terms of membership and influence.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, these recent labor victories would probably have seemed unimaginable. powerful, rich companies like Amazon and Starbucks seemed invincible then, at least in the context of National Labor Relations Commission rulers, which are heavily stacked against pro-union workers. Under NLRB rules, employers can — and do — force workers, on pain of dismissal, to attend anti-union meetingsoften led by highly paid external consultants.
Starbucks said it was “consistent in denying any allegations of anti-union activity. They are categorically false. But the NLRB alleged that the coffee chain fired and coerced workersplaced union supporters under surveillance and retaliation against them.
The NLRB has also sued Starbucks for illegally withholding pay and benefit increases from pro-union workers, and currently has nearly 300 open charges of unfair labor practices filed against Starbucks management. Amazon, which in the past announced that analysts would monitor “work organization threats“, said it respects the right of workers to join or not join unions.
The importance of recent victories is not primarily related to the 8,000 new union members at Amazon or a gradual stream of new union members at Starbucks. It’s about instilling in workers the belief that if pro-union workers can win at Amazon and Starbucks, they can win anywhere.
Historical precedents show that labor mobilization can be contagious.
In 1936 and 1937, workers at General Motors’ Flint plant brought the mighty automaker to its knees in a sit-down strike that quickly inspired similar action somewhere else. In the reported words of a Chicago doctor, explaining a later sit-down strike by nurses in the city: “It’s just one of those funny things. They want to strike because everyone is doing it.
seize the moment
After working on the front lines for more than two years, many essential workers like those at Amazon and Trader Joe’s feel they have not been rewarded enough for their service during the pandemic and were not treated with respect by their employers.
This seems to have helped stimulate popularity smaller, workplace-specific unions.
The local nature of these campaigns prevents chains from employing a decades-old trope central to corporate anti-union campaigns: that a the union is an external “third party”that doesn’t understand or care about employee concerns and is more interested in collecting dues.
But these arguments mostly ring hollow. when people who unionize are colleagues with whom they work day in and day out.
It has the effect of nullifying this central argument of the anti-union campaigns despite the several million dollars that companies often injected into it.
An unfavorable legal landscape
This “self-organization” is consistent with what the authors of the Wagner Act of 1935the law that forms the basis of today’s union representation procedures.
The first chairman of the National Labor Relations Board, J. Warren Madden, understood that self-organization could be fatally undermined if companies were allowed to engage in union-busting pressure tactics:
“Upon this fundamental principle – that an employer must not interfere with the self-organization of employees – the whole structure of the law rests”, he wrote. “Any compromise or weakening of this principle strikes at the root of the law.”
Over the past half-century, anti-union corporations and their consultants and law firms – aided by Republican-controlled NLRB and right-wing judges – have undermined this process of workers’ self-organization by allowing union elections to become employer-dominated.
But for the long-term decline in union membership to be reversed, I think pro-union workers will need stronger protections. Labor law reform is essential if almost 50% of non-union American workers who say they want union representation should have a chance to get it.
Dispel fear, futility and apathy
Lack of popular interest has long been an obstacle labor law reform.
Meaningful labor law reform is unlikely to happen unless people care about the issues, understand them, and believe they have a stake in the outcome.
But media interest in campaigns at Starbucks and Amazon suggests that the American public might finally be paying attention.
It’s unclear where this latest labor movement — or moment — will lead. It could evaporate or simply spark a wave of unionization in the low-wage service sector, spurring a national debate on workers’ rights.
The main weapons available to anti-union companies to suppress union dynamics are fear of reprisals and the feeling that organizing is futile. Recent successes show that unionization no longer seems so scary or so futile.