In the wake of the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, more and more people have been paying attention to the needs of essential workers, who often got hit the hardest. Now in spring 2022, an increasingly large number of workers are turning to unionization as a solution to achieve better wages and conditions.
Across the country, Starbucks workers have started a campaign to organize their workplaces. To date, at least 192 stores have filed or announced their intention to unionize since August 2021, and 10 have won their elections.
In Seattle, the home base of Starbucks, eight stores have filed to unionize in the past few months. Workers at the Broadway and Denny location in Capitol Hill won their election unanimously in March, becoming the first unionized Starbucks store in Seattle in decades.
While the unionization drive is only affecting a small portion of the 9,000 total US Starbucks locations, the organizing effort appears to be gaining momentum rapidly as more and more stores win their votes.
Howard Schultz, the longtime Starbucks boss who recently returned as interim CEO, held a town hall meeting via video conferencing system Microsoft Teams with workers across the country on April 4. In the video call, Schultz called unionizing workers “outside agitators” and said that “we can’t ignore what is happening across the country as it relates to companies … being assaulted in many ways by the threat of unionization.”
Starbucks has been accused of employing union-busting tactics, including firing baristas leading the organizing efforts.
Amidst the backdrop of worker organizing at Starbucks, a union campaign by Amazon workers in Staten Island, New York, made national news on April 1. After a year of hard-fought campaigning, workers at the Amazon JKF8 fulfillment center voted to unionize, winning their vote with 2,654 in favor and 2,131 votes against. This makes JKF8 the first unionized Amazon warehouse in the US.
The independent Amazon Labor Union won despite substantial pushback from Amazon corporate management. According to the Huffington Post, the retail giant spent more than $4 million on union-busting consulting firms in 2021.
Christian Smalls, the interim union president who was fired by Amazon for organizing a COVID-19 safety walkout in 2020, told Democracy Now! that they successfully organized despite huge odds.
“We started 11 months ago, a grassroots, worker-led movement, just Amazon workers, former, current, like myself, just trying to do the right thing — once again, no resources, no major backing, just a bunch of ordinary people just coming together from all over the country,” Smalls said.
The successful campaign by New York Amazon workers sent shockwaves across the country, with local Seattle unions applauding the historic victory. MLK Labor, the union federation representing over 100,000 workers in King County, congratulated the workers in a statement.
“This is a historic moment in time and has the power to shape America’s future,” said Executive Secretary-Treasurer Katie Garrow.
Business leaders had a much cooler response to the union victory. After the vote, Amazon released a statement objecting to “inappropriate and undue influence” by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the federal agency which oversees unionization efforts. CNBC commentator Jim Cramer said that it would be “dreadful” if bosses are no longer able to dictate to unionized workers what shifts they are able to take.
For Amelia, a worker at the consignment store Crossroads Trading in Capitol Hill, news of growing unionization efforts at Starbucks and Amazon was encouraging.
“This is really a sort of wave of labor organization that we’re seeing right now that’s spreading as more and more people are realizing their rights and realizing how they can stand up,” she said.
Amelia helped unionize her workplace in order to fight for a living wage and a stronger emphasis on COVID-19 safety in the workplace. On March 30, the NLRB announced the election results, which were a unanimous nine to zero.
The results make the Capitol Hill location the first unionized Crossroads Trading store, a national thrift clothing chain with 34 locations. According to Amelia, the corporate office fought strongly against the organizing effort.
“They had hired the infamous legal firm Jackson Lewis to help in their campaign against us,” Amelia said. “They had paralegals come into our store and try to give us a rundown on unions, but from a pretty anti-union perspective.”
The thrift store workers will now be represented by UFCW 3000, a union which represents more than 50,000 workers in the retail, grocery store, health care and other industries across the Pacific Northwest. Amelia told Real Change that she was happy that her coworkers were united despite their employer’s union-busting efforts.
“I’m overjoyed to see how we’ve overcome [the union busting] and still stuck together and are still standing up together to improve the workplace,” she said.
Local unionizing efforts are not just limited to Starbucks and Crossroads. Baristas and bakers at two Storyville Coffee locations were mailed their NLRB ballots on March 30. A worker at Storyville told Real Change that “odds are looking really well in the union’s favor.”
In February, health workers at the Country Doctor Community Clinic and at Carolyn Downs Family Medical Center voted to unionize with SEIU 1099NW. Workers at Carolyn Downs, which was founded by the Seattle Black Panther party, protested against racism at the clinic in 2021. Justice Wornum, a worker at Country Doctor, said unionizing could help the clinics live up to their social justice values.
“When so many employees of color have left this clinic frustrated and disappointed, it’s no surprise that our clinic is struggling,” Wornum said. “That reputation has a real impact, and it’s finally time to start living up to our promise of social justice.”
Despite the recent wins, labor organizing can often lead to bitter and protracted struggles. Roughly 300 Seattle area concrete workers have been on strike for more than four months after failing to come to an agreement with their employers. Workers say that concrete companies are refusing to come to the bargaining table.
Ron Henke, a mixer driver, said, “They seem to have no desire to negotiate with us at all.”
The strike has affected local construction projects, delaying repairs to the West Seattle Bridge, Highway 520 bridge and certain Sound Transit projects.
Henke says that the concrete companies are prioritizing profits over the city’s needs.
“It seems like they’re holding the whole community hostage for their agenda,” Henke said.
“I would like to support the community, and it just doesn’t seem like they’re making any moves at all to take care of the community and people and their employees,” he said.
In Skagit County, farm workers who work at the tulip fields went on a three-day strike in March ahead of the annual tulip festival to protest for better working conditions. As a result, they successfully negotiated with their employer improved wages and conditions.
In addition to promises of better pay and working conditions, this new wave of labor organizing is bringing hope to many workers.
“It’s giving me a lot of hope to see us gaining more of a foothold and being able to etch more of a living out of our daily jobs,” said Amelia. “We all play an important part in society and really everything all of us do matters.”
Guy Oron is the staff reporter for Real Change. Find them on Twitter, @GuyOron.
Read more of the Apr. 6-12, 2022 issue.