The Washington Post
American workers are standing up for themselves. Good.
Istopped by my local Starbucks the other day to congratulate the baristas: Theirs is the second Albany-area store to join a union. I said, “Nice work,” but I really meant “Thank you.” They’re helping me face the day with a shot of something more invigorating than coffee: good news.
American workers are standing up for themselves in encouraging numbers. More than 300 Starbucks stores nationwide have petitioned the National Labor Relations Board to hold a representation election. In 201 of those stores — across 32 states — pro-union forces have won. Just over 40 have lost.
The recent surge of unionization goes far beyond Starbucks: In April, Staten Island warehouse JFK8 became the first Amazon warehouse to unionize. In June, workers in a Towson, Md., Apple Store voted nearly 2 to 1 to join a union. (Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, owns The Post.)
Why is this good news? The title of a June report from the congressional Joint Economic Committee sums it up: “Unions Provide Major Economic Benefits for Workers and Families.” Unionization boosts pay, improves benefits and gives workers more control over their schedules. It helps narrow racial and gender pay gaps. And unions raise standards even in nonunionized workplaces in the same industry.
I’m not alone in cheering the movement. Gallup says 68 percent of Americans approve of unions, the highest rate since 1965; among young adults, it’s 77 percent. Union organizer Richard Bensinger thinks workers in their early 20s are the key to the current union movement. He calls it “a generational uprising.”
His martial language is unfortunately apt. Because when workers say they want to unionize, the predominant corporate response has been: “No, you don’t.”
In December, Amazon reached a settlement with the NLRB in response to six cases of union busting, including not letting employees gather in break rooms and calling the police on a leafleting organizer. The company holds mandatory meetings to make its case against unions and faces multiple accusations of retaliatory firings. Apple has been subjecting employees to one-on-one meetings with managers, who reportedly threaten that a union win will mean benefits lost.
As for Starbucks, an NLRB complaint filed in May alleges more than 200 separate violations of the National Labor Relations Act. Last month, the Buffalo NLRB filed a petition in federal court seeking injunctions to stop “an expansive array of illegal tactics such as raising wages, promising benefits, bringing in a cadre of managers to monitor employees and discourage union activity, closing stores with active organizing drives, and threatening employees” and ultimately firing seven union activists.
Starbucks’ anti-union activities are especially creepy given its paternalistic tone. CEO Howard Schultz said: “I’m not an anti-union person. I am proStarbucks, pro-partner, pro-starbucks culture.” (A “partner” in Starbucks lingo is an employee in exactly the way a “tall” coffee is a small.)
A company website explains that “unions are a business, just like Starbucks. But they make their money by collecting member dues instead of making great coffee. Those funds are spent on things like salaries, overhead expenses and political contributions — not on partners.” It does not mention that the last CEO of the Starbucks business, Kevin Johnson, made more than $20 million in 2021.
The company goes on to warn, “The union might also negotiate away current conditions that matter a lot to you.” We want to treat you well, but your union might force us not to!
“Compensation can increase, decrease or remain the same. It can be a gamble.” It’s like weather! We have absolutely no control!
Schultz appears to think companies as “being assaulted . . . by the threat of unionization.”
Corporations fighting unions may seem normal to us, in the way that cops on TV trying to persuade suspects not to call lawyers or Republicans in state legislatures trying to make it harder to vote seem normal. But that doesn’t make it right.
In fact, collective bargaining, like democracy, should be something everyone favors. Welcoming a union — rather than fighting it with every available method, legal and otherwise — should be a sign that a company truly respects its workers and their wishes.
That might sound like a fantasy, but it’s not unheard of. In December, management voluntarily recognized a union formed by workers at videogame developer Vodeo Games. Leadership at party-game maker Cards Against Humanity responded to organizing efforts in 2020 by saying, “If the majority of our employees want a union, we’re all for it.”
These companies are minuscule compared with Amazon and Starbucks. But Microsoft might be taking a similar tack: Last month, it announced a labor neutrality agreement with Communications Workers of America, in which the tech giant promised not to fight its workers’ efforts to join a union.
Whether Microsoft keeps its commitments remains to be seen. But it seems like a good sign that it refers to labor organizations as “stakeholders” rather than, as Schultz describes them, “outsiders trying to take our people.”
Sorry, Mr. Schultz. Those are actually your people wanting to make that “partnership” a little bit more of a reality. Why not just let them?