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What is the Significance of the First Union Store at Starbucks?

Economic Policy Brief #132 | By: Rosalind Gottfried | December 21, 2021

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Policy Summary

The recent union vote, at a Buffalo, NY Starbucks, represents the first success in the company’s 8000 corporate retail outlets.  Workers United is the entity representing the workers and is affiliated with the Service Employees International Union.  Another area store failed to vote in a union while a third one had a successful outcome which has been contested by both sides.   At issue are wages, benefits, and other working conditions such as staffing and scheduling.  Speculation surrounds the efforts as to whether this is a harbinger of a coming trend or an anomaly. 

Unionization has been  markedly down in the past several decades.  Although there was a slight gain in membership in 2020, unionization hovers around 11% and, if the public unions are not in the count, the figure is cut in half.   Restaurants are the least unionized industry in the U.S.  The pandemic seemingly has contributed a boost to unionization and 68% of Americans now support unions; the highest figure since 1965.  This surge counters a fifty-year trend of government regulations favoring employers.

Suggestions that the pandemic is promoting a pro union drive are spreading with workers giving more consideration to the conditions of work, especially in the low wage labor force.  Almost 9 million workers quit jobs in September and October and there is persistent evidence that workers are not rushing back to work and are holding out for better pay and conditions. 

Accusations of unfair labor practices by Starbucks pervade the efforts in the Buffalo areas.  Starbucks has allegedly forced workers to attend anti-union meetings; flown in managers and executives from around the country to observe and intimidate workers; threatened losses of benefits; and manipulated the scheduling and hours of the union activities. Starbucks has even temporarily closed area stores.  All of these practices, the corporation leadership suggests, are common practices though this assertion is adamantly contested.  Hours before the Buffalo vote, Starbucks raised the minimum wage of its workers to $15 an hour and boosted wages for workers with two and five years of experience; the latter maneuver in response to employee criticism that veteran workers were making little more than new employees. 

Three more Buffalo outlets, two outlets in Boston, and one in Mesa, Arizona have filed petitions to unionize with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).  Starbucks fought off union efforts in NYC and Philadelphia.  In 2019, The NLRB made a judgement against Starbucks for firing two employees who has been active in a union campaign.  Starbucks is appealing that decision.   In Canada, there was one successful union vote in a corporate retail outlet. 

In November of this year the Labor Board ordered a re-vote of a union effort in an Alabama Amazon warehouse, stating that the corporation had engaged in unfair practices including pressuring warehouse employees to vote against the union, which they had 2:1.  Amazon has filed an appeal of the decision.  President Biden supported the union effort engineered by the Retail, Wholesale, Department Store Union.  Amazon is the country’s second largest private employer with 950,000 employees.   The Bessemer, Alabama union drive was the first Amazon union effort since 2014; so far none have been successful in the U.S. though the European Amazon workers are characteristically unionized.  The teamsters have made the domestic union effort a top priority. 

Policy Analysis

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports 13 strikes this year but they count only organizations with more than 1000 employs so they excluded, for example, the 700 nurses who went on strike in Massachusetts.  A research project at Cornell University estimates that there have been 243 strikes this year.  

A successful teacher strike in West Virginia, in 2018, led to teacher strikes in multiple states indicating a trend of activism spreading across the country and extending to private companies such as John Deere and Kellogg’s.  

In March 2021 the U.S. House passed the Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO act) which would strengthen the ability of private sector workers to unionize for collective bargaining; allow gig and contract workers to be represented by unions; maintain tighter restrictions on corporate practices regarding unionization; and levy stronger sanctions for violations of labor practices.  

Photo taken from: The GuardianBiden gives tentative support to Amazon workers in union push

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The bill has yet to pass in the Senate.  Clearly, the agency of workers has been altered by the present conditions and it remains to be seen how this will play out.

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