Can Unions Still Transform the Workplace?
Young workers, women, and people of color are combining digital innovation with old-school face-to-face organizing to build a new labor movement.
Young people, women, and people of color are at the forefront of a new wave of labor organizing in the United States.
Beginning in 2020, figures like Amazon Labor Union President Chris Smalls and rank-and-file workers like Starbucks barista Michelle Eisen have been leading successful unionization efforts at some of the nation’s largest companies. These young organizers are innovatively combining old-school face-to-face organizing with digital communication tools, as employers scramble to respond.
“It’s possible that this new generation of female-heavy, people-of-color-heavy trade unionists will succeed where we have been failing for a couple of generations,” says labor expert and author Jane McAlevey. While noting that victory isn’t inevitable, she recognizes that the people driving this movement “are fighting to form unions so that there is radical change and transformational change in their life.”
Politics, Pandemic, and the Public
The flurry of headlines about union victories at major U.S. companies is not a mirage. According to the National Labor Relations Board, “Union election petitions increased by 57%” in the first half of fiscal year 2021–22.
“I don’t think there’s a secret” to the success of these re-emergent organizers, says labor expert Shaun Richman. “I think they’re just doing good organizing, which most unions have stopped doing.”
Richman spent years as a frontline organizer with the American Federation of Teachers and is the author of Tell the Bosses We’re Coming: A New Action Plan for Workers in the 21st Century. He thinks that today, “Workers are more ready to take action and less apt to buy into the boss’s bullshit in these captive audience meetings” where employers promote anti-union messaging.
The current political landscape has also been more favorable to organizing since the summer of 2021, when a pro-union majority on the NLRB began enforcing labor laws and increasingly sanctioning companies for violating workers’ rights. “Biden as president and his appointees to the NLRB have made the legal landscape finally fairer for workers,” says Richman.
Organized labor in the United States has been in decline for years. In 2021, only about 10% of the workforce was unionized, down from 20% in the early 1980s. In the private sector, things look even worse, with a mere 6.1% of workers in unions.
But the idea of unions is popular. More than 60% of Americans believe the decline in union membership is bad for working people, according to a 2022 Pew Research poll. Now, more than two years into a devastating pandemic, many workers who were deemed “essential” in 2020 are eager to flex their power in a tightening labor market.
Starbucks Siren Switches Sides
Starbucks cafés, in particular, are choosing union representation at breathtaking speed, with 150 stores holding successful votes in the six months between December 8, 2021, and June 14, 2022. Meanwhile, workers at Amazon, Apple, Trader Joe’s, and other well-known American brands are also in various stages of union organizing.
Michelle Eisen is an organizing member with Starbucks Workers United and a barista at a Starbucks café in Buffalo, New York, the first location in the iconic coffee chain to successfully vote for a union in more than two decades. Although she had no prior labor organizing experience, Eisen says she understands now just how much digital technology gave workers like her an advantage over traditional organizing methods.
“When we went public [with the union], I created a group text with everybody in my store, so anytime there was information that needed to come out, we were able to get that to people,” she says.
This was particularly handy when Starbucks’ corporate executives began dropping by her store on Elmwood Avenue unannounced, claiming to give workers a helping hand by sweeping floors and taking out the trash. Workers say their real agenda was to intervene in pro-union discussions. “What corporate didn’t realize was that these conversations [about unions] weren’t happening on the floor,” says Eisen. They were happening via text and social media.
Starbucks workers across Buffalo created a citywide account on the GroupMe app, which enabled them to track corporate executives as they moved from café to café—and alert one another to be prepared. “What you’re seeing is organizing evolving with the times,” Eisen says.
At a broader level, Eisen says digital technology has also been helpful for garnering public support. SWU launched all its social media accounts on the day the first union petition in Buffalo became public, and instantly gained followers consisting of fellow Starbucks baristas and other supporters. That visible digital encouragement “gave a boost” to the Elmwood café workers, Eisen explains. Months later, a majority voted to join the union.
Soon after the successful union vote at her store, Eisen hopped on a Zoom call with workers at a Starbucks café in Mesa, Arizona, to share what she had learned with her counterparts on the other side of the nation.
While digital avenues offer valuable information-sharing networks among organizers, many still rely on a key traditional approach: one-on-one connections with fellow workers. When she connected with colleagues unsure about unionizing, Eisen took them out to coffee at another location to address their concerns in-person. She even flew to Arizona to meet her Mesa counterparts, an experience she says was deeper than a Zoom call.
As a self-described “geriatric millennial,” Eisen is older than most of her fellow organizers. When Starbucks publishes an anti-union bulletin, younger workers will often have created a witty comeback or meme to post on social media within minutes, Eisen says.
While Starbucks has “endless amounts of resources” to fight union activity, “what we have is our ability to communicate with our fellow workers,” says Eisen.
Building on Earlier Victories
The current wave of labor organizing has been building slowly for years, says Bill Fletcher Jr., a labor analyst and author of “They’re Bankrupting Us!”: And 20 Other Myths About Unions.
Fletcher points to “teacher wildcat strikes from 2018 that seemed to come out of nowhere” (wildcat strikes are walkouts that are not authorized by official union leadership). He notes that those strikes were in turn built on the excitement of the fast-food-worker-led “Fight for $15” campaign, beginning in 2012 in Chicago and New York. Both organizing drives were centered in industries where women and people of color are well represented.
Before that, California’s immigrant-led organizing in the 1990s resulted in the powerful Justice for Janitors campaign, and, prior to that, Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta led the farmworkers’ grape boycotts in California.
While the executive leadership of organized labor groups has been historically dominated by White men, people of color and women have led on-the-ground labor efforts for well over a century. In the 1930s, “the rise of the CIO [Congress of Industrial Organizations] simply would not have been possible were it not for the active organizing carried out by African American, Chicano, and Asian workers,” says Fletcher. He cites the historic Black-led wildcat strikes that spread throughout the South from 1866 to 1868.
“Workers of color have always been involved, post–Civil War, in organizing,” Fletcher explains. “Either in their own unions or labor organizations, or in mixed organizations.”
Fast-forward to the recent wave of labor organizing, spurred on in large part by poor working conditions that became more apparent during the pandemic. During the lockdowns, low-wage workers were required to continue working and were rebranded “essential workers” with little added reward for risking their health in service of community.
But the erosion of workers’ rights long predates the pandemic. Maeg Yosef, an employee at a Trader Joe’s in Hadley, Massachusetts, says the company began “chipping away” at employee benefits roughly 10 years ago. Then, during the pandemic, it escalated its anti-worker efforts.
“Our wages are really stagnant right now,” explains Yosef. “They’re not keeping up with inflation.”
In fact, inflation has been outpacing wages for most U.S. workers since the Great Recession in 2007. Additionally, Trader Joe’s in January 2022 cut retirement benefits for those employees who have been at the company for less than a decade.
In June, Yosef’s branch became the first store in the national chain to vote for a union. “Seeing other workers organize made us feel that it was possible” to do the same, says Yosef, who is now an organizer with Trader Joe’s United, a union effort similar to SWU.
Organizing for Power
It’s not just the pandemic that spurred this new chapter in labor organizing, says Fletcher. “You’ve had, for several years, so-called implant organizers, people who go to work to organize from inside.” Among them are members of groups like Democratic Socialists of America, which has partnered with a global training program called Organizing for Power, or O4P.
Developed by McAlevey, O4P’s training sessions turn workers into organizers, teaching them effective unionizing tactics, such as how to identify leaders in the workplace who can influence others to join them, and how to use the right language to convince fellow workers who are fearful of unions.
The recurring trainings, which are offered to trade unionists around the world, were first conceived in 2019 during a discussion with McAlevey about her book No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age at the headquarters of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Germany.
A year later, McAlevey helped to build a global training team for an O4P session called Strike School. The trainers were mostly women of color, because “that’s the new movement, that’s who’s winning,” explains McAlevey. Seven thousand people attended that eight-week course.
Today, individuals are not allowed to sign up for O4P sessions unless they bring a team of workers with them; as McAlevey says, “Organizing is not an individual sport.” Her trainings seem to have had a ripple effect across the U.S., arming organizers with proven tactics to ensure union organizing victories.
Breaking the Amazon Barrier
In October 2021, WNYC host Brian Lehrer interviewed McAlevey along with Chris Smalls, a former Amazon warehouse supervisor who was fired in 2020 after he spoke out about his employer’s lack of safety protocols in the early days of the pandemic. Smalls explained how he became a labor leader, saying, “Me and several members of my union, we took the courses and we followed suit with some of [McAlevey’s] work and it’s been beneficial and helpful for us.”
Today, Smalls is president of the Amazon Labor Union and has become the face of one of the most exciting chapters of the new labor movement.
Amazon is the U.S.’s second-largest private employer and, like Starbucks, has endless resources available to fight unions. After Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama, voted twice against unionizing in 2021 and 2022, their counterparts at JFK8 warehouse in Staten Island, New York, made history by voting to join ALU in April 2022. It was the first successful union effort in the company’s history.
The victory was all the more remarkable because JFK8 workers chose to join an independent, newly formed union. The unsuccessful Bessemer effort, by contrast, was led by an established organization: the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.
Two years before the JFK8 vote, Smalls saw the writing on the wall. “This pandemic exposed a lot about these major corporations,” he told Rising Up With Sonali in April 2020. At the start of the pandemic, he said, “My former employees, my colleagues around me, they began to fall ill, some of them had dizziness, fatigue, they couldn’t finish their 10-hour work shifts.”
The pandemic lockdowns spurred a massive increase in online shopping, and as Amazon’s profits skyrocketed, Smalls said workers physically bore the costs: “We had no cleaning supplies, we had no PPE provided, no facial masks, no gloves. So, for me, it was a scary situation and I wanted to be proactive instead of reactive.”
Smalls made his concerns known, and soon after, the company fired him. But he refused to walk away; he began organizing JFK8 workers. A leaked memo written by Amazon General Counsel David Zapolsky revealed the company’s racist attitude toward Smalls and its plan to counteract him: “He’s not smart, or articulate, and to the extent the press wants to focus on us versus him, we will be in a much stronger PR position than simply explaining for the umpteenth time how we’re trying to protect workers.”
Those words came back to haunt Amazon. Over the next two years, Smalls and his colleagues painstakingly organized workers, meeting them one-on-one as they waited for the bus, bringing them food, and using digital tools like TikTok videos to spread their pro-union message. Like SWU, the ALU used an effective combination of traditional and digital labor organizing methods. “I’m speaking up for the voices that are unheard. The voices of the people that can’t speak,” said Smalls in 2020.
A New Model: Workers As Leaders
One of the most prevalent themes emerging from the new wave of labor organizing is how workers are taking the lead in union organizing. “I think the employees should have the right to choose what type of leadership and democracy they want to have,” Smalls said in 2020, before he formed the ALU, whether it’s a “rank-and-file committee controlled by the employees … [or] a union that is trustworthy on taking care of their employees’ demands.” In pointing out that a union must earn the trust of the workers it represents, Smalls hinted that the reputations of traditional unions have eroded in recent years.
Unlike at Amazon, the Starbucks effort began with the support of an established union. In summer 2020, an East Coast–based coffee chain called Spot Coffee successfully unionized with the help of the independent SEIU affiliate Workers United, becoming the largest unionized coffee chain at that time in the U.S. This prompted a Buffalo-based Starbucks worker to contact Workers United about the idea of unionizing the nation’s largest coffee chain.
Diverging from the traditional labor playbook, Workers United allowed Starbucks workers to take the lead on organizing, while helping behind the scenes with necessary financial resources. This sort of worker-led organizing appears to have been a critical element to SWU’s success, as employees were far more receptive to a pro-union message from a trusted colleague than from an outside paid union employee.
The independence from strict union protocols also enabled workers to invent the organizing playbook as they went along instead of sticking to a traditional script. It made them nimble and savvy in the face of well-funded corporate tactics. “It’s become a really great partnership between Starbucks workers and Workers United,” says Eisen.
Yosef, who hopes her Massachusetts-based Trader Joe’s union organizing inspires other branches to start doing the same, echoes a desire for worker leadership. “What’s happening now is more worker-driven. We don’t want to be told what to do by our boss, or by some other institution,” she says. “We want to do it ourselves and make decisions for ourselves and have autonomy and control over the process.”