Union organizers say organizing a Starbucks store in Buffalo, New York, could be “the tip of the iceberg.”
“The pandemic has laid bare the typical discourse of workers,” said Christian Sweeney, deputy organizing director of the AFL-CIO union. “There has been a lot of praise for people doing rude work,” but little gain for workers, he said.
“Workers who do essential work have a greater expectation that wages and benefits reflect the essential nature of their work,” said Sweeney. More and more organizational activity is developing in restaurants, food retail establishments and among workers in e-commerce delivery and distribution centers, he said.
Across the country, new momentum seems to be emerging for increased power and rights for workers. Employers are asking for workers because many are left behind for health or childcare issues, or because their free time has given them the opportunity to reflect on what they want out of life. Historic levels of job vacancies have stiffened the backbone of workers as they feel more confident than they have in years, leaving jobs at historic levels, in what is called “the big resignation ”and demanding higher wages and benefits.
In 2020, the number of strikes and work stoppages fell to all-time lows. For 2021, there have been 346 to date, according to the Cornell University Labor Action Tracker. John Deere workers have been on strike for a month from October for a new contract, while Kellogg workers are still on strike. Health care workers in California went on strike as a third of public hospitals faced staff shortages and Nabisco workers went on strike.
A union campaign at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala. Was defeated earlier this year, but in late November, the regional office of the National Labor Relations Board ordered a new election after a hearing officer found out that the e-commerce giant had illegally discouraged the organization. On Thursday, 17,000 student researchers from the University of California at San Diego won the right to be recognized as a union represented by the UAW.
Starbucks Workers United, affiliated with the Service Employees International Union, may also have energy to drive more organizing elsewhere. Starbucks workers in Mesa, Arizona, also sent a letter to the company calling for a union election.
After plunging to an all-time low in 2009 at the height of the Great Recession, American support for unions is now around 68%, according to the Gallup poll, a level not seen since 1965.
Unions are no longer just for blue collar workers or public service employees. Organizational attempts have been successful or have been attempted in digital and traditional media organizations in recent years.
“It’s a generational problem. For these workers, they’re poor people. They work at Starbucks. They have a second job or are in school with debt. Almost none of them have any hope. to own a home, ”said Richard Bensinger, an experienced organizer who helped with Starbucks’ organizing effort.
The role of unions has been a hotly debated and politicized issue for years. Some labor economists consider that unions create inefficiencies in the market by monopolizing and effectively withholding labor in order to raise wages above competitive levels, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.
But, in circumstances where companies have excessive control over the structure of the market, unions have an overall positive impact, according to the bank’s report.
“In special cases – for example in a ‘company town’ where labor mobility is limited and where there are only one or two employers – a union may thwart the power of monopsony. of the employer (s), resulting in a more efficient allocation of resources and a net benefit to society. “
The pandemic has made it clear that there is a deep power imbalance between employers and employees, said Heidi Shierholz, president of the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank.
“Growing inequalities and stagnating wages for workers for most of the past four decades, with corporate profits ranging like gangbusters and the fortunes of billionaires rising to billions amid the pandemic have highlighted that it s ‘This is an economy that doesn’t work for everyone, ”Shierholz said.
The billions of billionaires’ fortunes rising to billions in the midst of the pandemic have underscored that this is an economy that does not work for everyone.
“These are extraordinary circumstances. We are in the aftermath of a Covid recession and we are still in a pandemic. People are seeing workers literally dying because of dangerous workplaces, ”she said.
President Joe Biden, who openly expressed his pro-union beliefs during his election campaign, added his voice to the chorus on Friday, sending out a statement in support of the Kellogg strikers.
He spoke specifically of reports that Kellogg would permanently replace striking workers during collective bargaining, but he also expressed support for unionized workers more broadly, recognizing “the critical role collective bargaining plays in giving workers a voice and the opportunity to improve their lives while fully contributing to their employer’s success.
“Unions have built the middle class in this country,” Biden said in the statement. “My unwavering support for unions includes support for collective bargaining, and I will defend both aggressively. “
Labor members believe Starbucks’ union effort marks a turning point for the labor movement.
“It might inspire other workers on the fence to go. More unions equals better wages for everyone, ”said Tia Yammie, a unionized service worker from California.
“Why is there growing support for unions? Because workers are fed up with low wages, lack of benefits and lack of protection. Until someone pays workers a living wage, the job protections have not worked, the time to demand and get it is now. “