Emboldened labor movement seeks to expand on successes
The labor movement is scoring a series of victories that leaders say are emboldening still more workers in their attempts to unionize.
President Biden on Thursday met with 39 labor leaders, including Christian Smalls, head of the Amazon Labor Union, and Starbucks union leader Laura Garza, at the White House.
That meeting, which drew praise from union leaders and scorn from Starbucks, came after more than 240 Starbucks stores filed for union elections, 57 of which voted to unionize, and workers at a New York Amazon warehouse voted to form the first U.S. union in the tech giant’s history.
“That was a historic moment. The White House visit in itself shows that every worker who is in a union and every worker who is thinking of organizing their workplace has an ally in the highest office in the country,” said Fred Redmond, secretary-treasurer and executive vice president of the AFL-CIO.
Labor leaders say they’ve seen the momentum for organizing grow since Starbucks workers in Buffalo, N.Y., voted to form the coffee chain’s first U.S. union in December.
The number of union petitions filed between October 2021 and March 2022 was a 57 percent increase over the same period last year, according to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
Jennifer Abruzzo, the board’s general counsel and a former Communications Workers of America official, said in a statement that workers are filing for more union elections than at any point in the last 10 years.
“To have these successes is really significant to send a message that nobody should just accept that where they work is unorganizable,” said Sharon Block, a Harvard Law School professor and former NLRB member who served as acting administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Biden administration.
The uptick in organizing comes as record numbers of job openings give workers more leverage than they had in previous years. Workers are often pushing for better pay, hours and working conditions, citing pandemic-induced burnout and safety concerns.
“As we’re continuing to recover from this pandemic, what we’re finding is an entire workforce that is waking up to the realization that they deserve better,” Redmond said. “They were essential one minute and expendable the next minute.”
Organizers are emboldened by Biden’s pro-labor NLRB that is pursuing legal action against Starbucks and Amazon over anti-union tactics and seeks to ban schemes commonly used by corporations to quash organizing.
On Friday, a regional NLRB director in Buffalo filed a complaint accusing Starbucks of more than 200 labor law violations, alleging that the company threatened and retaliated against New York union organizers by reducing their pay, closing stores and firing workers. The NLRB demanded that Starbucks reinstate six workers who were allegedly fired for organizing and give them back pay.
Starbucks disputed the allegations of the complaint, which the Starbucks Workers United Union hailed as a key win. The union has accused Starbucks of harassing, intimidating and spying on organizers, while also promising new benefits to workers if they vote against unionization.
“Starbucks is finally being held accountable for the union-busting rampage they went on,” Danny Rojas, a fired Starbucks union organizer, said in a statement.
Last week, Starbucks announced a slew of new benefits, including improved sick leave and tipping — but not to stores that voted to unionize, a move that will prompt another NLRB complaint from the baristas union.
“We do not have the same freedom to make these improvements at locations that have a union or where union organizing is underway,” Starbucks interim CEO Howard Schultz told investors on a conference call.
Starbucks sent a letter to the White House Thursday criticizing Biden’s decision to meet with union organizers but not company executives, stating that the lack of representation “discounts the reality that the majority of our partners oppose being members of a union.”
Biden, who has pitched himself as the most pro-union president in history, has warned employers not to interfere with union elections and voiced support for unionization efforts, even giving a nod to Amazon organizers last month.
“The choice to join a union belongs to workers alone,” Biden said during a conference hosted by North America’s Building Trades Unions. “By the way, Amazon, here we come. Watch.”
Those remarks came after workers at a Staten Island Amazon warehouse voted to unionize by a wide margin, overcoming intense opposition from the company, which held mandatory staff meetings discouraging workers from voting to unionize.
The NLRB’s regional office in Brooklyn said Friday that Amazon may have broken labor laws by holding these “captive audience” meetings. The determination came after the NLRB’s Abruzzo said last month that the board should ban the practice altogether, stating that the “license to coerce” is inconsistent with labor law.
Amazon has said the allegations are false and that mandatory meetings have been commonly used for decades.
But rulings like those could give other workers a boost as they seek to unionize other companies that have historically blocked organizing. An Apple store near Atlanta became the first to file for a union election last month, a move that prompted two other locations to follow suit. In March, Google Fiber contractors in Kansas City became the first Alphabet workers to unionize.
Labor experts are eager to see how other companies respond to unionization efforts, given that Starbucks and Amazon received significant public backlash for cracking down on organizing that may have sparked additional union drives.
“I think there’s a message for leadership of other corporations who don’t want to have their workers unionized, is that these kinds of heavy-handed tactics can backfire,” Block said.
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