“Seven months ago if you asked me about a union I would’ve said, ‘I don’t know, cops have them?’” says Sarah Pappin, a shift supervisor at a Seattle Starbucks. But on June 6, she and her co-workers voted unanimously to join Starbucks Workers United, part of an upsurge of organizing by younger workers with little union experience that is breathing new life into the labor movement.
Now they’re dreaming even bigger. “We want to not just open the door for the rest of the food service industry, we want to kick it down,” said Pappin, who’s worked full-time at Starbucks for eight years. “Eventually you get tired of jumping to the next job and praying it’s gonna be better. You realize you should just take a stand where you have some good ground.”
The union wave at Starbucks and the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) victory on Staten Island have sparked a new sense of possibility among workers at some of the country’s biggest nonunion employers, where unions have struggled for decades to establish any sort of foothold.
Since their April win, ALU organizers say they’ve heard from workers at another 100 Amazon facilities across the country who want to unionize. And in recent months workers have filed for union elections at Trader Joe’s stores in Massachusetts and Minneapolis, an REI in Manhattan, a Target in Virginia, and Apple stores in Atlanta and Towson, Maryland.
Workers in other largely non-union sectors are also organizing, with workers at an Activision Blizzard subsidiary forming the first union at a major video game company in May and tech workers at The New York Times becoming the largest bargaining unit in tech in March.
A CASCADING EFFECT
The organizing wave is turning the labor movement’s prevailing wisdom on its head. Until now unions have mostly avoided filing for election at single workplaces that are part of big chains, like fast food restaurants or Amazon warehouses, not seeing a viable route to a first contract.
But the worker-organizers behind the current upsurge have relied on grassroots organizing to produce a cascading effect.
“The most beautiful thing about this whole movement is that we only have to win one to show what’s possible,” says Casey Moore, a barista at a Starbucks in Buffalo, the city that was home to the union’s first victory last year.
After the December vote count, Moore said, “we just started getting flooded with emails and direct messages on social media saying ‘We’re so inspired, how can we do it here?’”
Boston barista Kylah Clay was among those inspired. “We started talking about our working conditions in this new light—that we can actually change them,” she said. Clay is now helping Starbucks workers throughout New England to organize.
As we went to press, the upstart union had won elections at 177 Starbucks stores in 30 states, and lost just 30; 98 more stores had filed for elections. Workers have also struck over issues ranging from leaky ceilings and malfunctioning grease traps to cuts in hours and retaliatory firings.
Starbucks baristas have a tight workplace culture that helps explain their success. Many of the workers are younger, queer, and work there in part for the gender-affirming health benefits. “We work shoulder to shoulder in very frustrating conditions,” says Pappin. “We already know what the power of working together is.”
Directed from Below
The level of self-direction is a novel aspect of these recent campaigns. While Starbucks Workers United is getting advice and legal help from the SEIU affiliate Workers United, most of the organizing is being done by Starbucks workers. ALU is independent.
“What strikes me about what’s going on now is that it’s not being done by professional organizers,” says Labor Notes co-founder Kim Moody. “A lot of these campaigns are being initiated by the workers themselves, much as auto workers did in the 1930s.”
“It’s different from anything I’ve seen in the worker arena,” said Stephanie Luce, a professor at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies. “It feels like elements of what we saw around other upsurges of protest—the globalization moment, the Occupy moment, the George Floyd moment. What those had in common was that they were not directed from above.”
When ALU filed at the Staten Island warehouse with signatures from just 30 percent of the workforce—the bare minimum to get a union election—most labor organizers scoffed at their chances. The general rule is that you have to file with at least 60 percent support (and preferably more) to withstand management’s anti-union campaign.
But ALU shocked the world and won. “It caused me to rethink the old rules of organizing,” said Peter Olney, former organizing director for the Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). “You start to think: what about the churn at Amazon? You’re never gonna get to 70 or 80 percent with the churn [the high rate of turnover –Eds]. If you have the organization to get to 30 percent, then you may have the organization to win an election.”
Olney said he’s now encouraging unions to take more seriously the idea of filing for election sooner: “Shouldn’t we be viewing this as a moment to engage in mass filings to stress management and their union-busters? Say you’ve been building out a committee, done actions, marched on the boss—couldn’t you win an election? And wouldn’t winning an election put you on the map?
“Yes, we’ll lose some, but if we were to win at an Amazon facility in Southern California, imagine the media and public reverberations of such a victory.”