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Unions Resurgent

Photo: CNN.
Starbucks Workers United partners celebrate a victory after watching the union vote count in Mesa, Arizona.

On Labor Day weekend, I’m thinking about traditional labor unions and how they benefited not only members but nonunion workers, too. I know there were abuses once the leaders got too powerful, but power has swung back too much in favor of corporations, I think.

So today I’m taking a look at recent actions on the fringes of the movement and pondering what it might mean for the future.

In April, Chris Isidore and Sara O’Brien of CNN reported on the relatively small but meaningful wins at Starbucks and Amazon.

“Labor unions haven’t had this much success in decades. After years of failed organizing efforts and a long, steady decline in the number of private sector workers represented by unions, two grassroots upstart groups have scored recent victories at two of the nation’s largest employers: Amazon and Starbucks. …

” ‘I think it’s very significant, even though it’s a small percentage of the workforces so far,’ said Alexander Colvin, dean of Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations School. …

“The National Labor Relations Board reports that from October 2021 through last [March], 1,174 petitions were filed at the agency seeking union representation. That’s up 57% from the same period a year earlier — and the highest level of union organizing in 10 years.

“The Amazon and Starbucks victories are important to union organizing efforts, Colvin said.

“That sentiment is echoed by Chris Smalls, who went from fired Amazon employee to the the leader of the Amazon Labor Union, which recently became the first union to win a representation vote at one of Amazon’s facilities. …

” ‘I think what we did … is a catalyst for a revolution with Amazon workers, just like the Starbucks unionizing effort,’ he said on an interview on CNN+. …

“Over at Starbucks, since December workers at 17 stores from Boston to its hometown of Seattle have voted to be represented by Starbucks Workers United — a separate grassroots union effort that has filed to hold votes at more than 100 additional stores.

“Starbucks has about 235,000 workers spread across 9,000 company-operated US stores. Fewer than 1,000 workers at the 17 stores have voted for the union. It’s similar at Amazon, where some 8,300 hourly workers were eligible to vote at the Staten Island facility. That’s not even 1% of the company’s US workforce of 1.1 million employees, including both warehouse and office workers. …

“Still, the efforts seem to be having an effect. Starbucks recently announced it suspended repurchases of its stock, a move that would benefit primarily its shareholders, in order to invest more in its employees. The company also instituted two wage increases in the last 18 months, and in October said it would raise wages. …

“Many of the unions’ demands stem from the difficulties of working during the pandemic during the last two years, said John Logan, professor of labor and employment studies at San Francisco State University.

” ‘Part of what’s changed is we’re just in a different moment, [with] frontline workers feeling they were not rewarded or treated with respect during the pandemic,’ said Logan. …

“It’s an uphill battle for unions to win new members, but that doesn’t mean they can’t succeed, said Erik Loomis, a labor historian and associate professor at the University of Rhode Island.

” ‘Amazon is the GM or the US Steel of our time — and it took decades to organize those places,’ he said last month, before the vote results at Amazon were known. ‘It took many different forms of campaigns led by different ideologies, different modes of organizing … before these kind of companies were finally successfully organized.’ “

Lauren Kaori Gurley at the Washington Post had more to add in August: “Workers have voted to unionize for the first time in recent weeks at Trader Joe’s and Chipotle. Unions have also made significant inroads at AmazonStarbucksApple and REI, employers that have long resisted unionization.

“Behind these small, but notable, victories is renewed popular support among Americans for the labor movement: Seventy-one percent of Americans approve of unions, matching a 53-year high, according to a Gallup poll released Tuesday. …

“According to a monthly report released Tuesday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of people who quit their jobs remained elevated although below its peak, at 2.7 percent, as record numbers of Americans continue to reconsider their employment options. The report offered signs that workers will remain emboldened to engage in workplace activism. …

“The July jobs report shocked many economists: Employers added 528,000 jobs, shattering expectations. … Economists say tight labor markets tend to give workers more leverage to form unions and to demand higher wages and better working conditions, while downturns leave workers less willing to make collective demands of their employers.

“ ‘Unless the labor market cools off a lot, there’s going to continue to be a lot of workers demanding collective bargaining power,’ [Guy Berger, principal economist at LinkedIn] said.

“Still, even a cooling-off economy would not necessarily undo cultural shifts that have resulted in the rising popularity of unions, particularly among young, college-educated workers. …

“Despite a 56 percent uptick in filings for union elections nationwide in the first three quarters of the 2022 fiscal year, labor experts say that many of these victories at major employers such as Amazon and Starbucks are mostly symbolic, covering a mere sliver of these companies’ enormous workforces. Meanwhile, although support for unions has been steadily increasing since the pandemic, union membership in the United States declined last year; only 1 in 10 workers are union members. …

“ ‘There’s still a huge disconnect between this recent organizing wave and long-term national membership trends,’ said [Logan]. ‘The real significance of these campaigns is not in the number of new members, which is pretty meaningless, but the excitement, optimism and inspiration they generate in some sections of the labor force — especially among young, politicized, educated workers in the low-wage service sector.’ ” More at CNN, here, and the Post, here.

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Some days I walk in Boston and snap the sights down side streets. The first photo was taken near the harbor. The others were taken near Downtown Crossing.

I like the Adrienne Rich line painted on a bookstore wall: “You must write, and read, as if your life depended on it.”

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The president recently handed out the Medal of Freedom awards. Maybe in the excitement around around Bob Dylan, Toni Morrison, and John Glenn, you missed that Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers union, also was honored.

Fox News-Latino wrote, “The White House will present the lifelong unionist and immigrant rights advocate with the Medal of Freedom. …

“Huerta’s sense of justice developed from an early age. Raised in Stockton, Calif., Huerta watched her father work for little pay in the fields, while her mother managed a hotel that often let poor migrants stay for free, according to the Daily Beast.

“Along with César Chávez, Huerta founded the National Farm Workers Association in 1962, which later evolved into the United Farm Workers of America. …

“Using strikes, marches, boycotts and hunger strikes, the UFW has defended the interests of farm workers. … Huerta has been arrested 22 times and been beaten for her activism.

Notwithstanding her run-ins with the law, Huerta has been influential in passing far-reaching legislation. Her accomplishments as a labor rights activist include helping pass California’s Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975 and helping secure disability insurance for California farmworkers. …

Huerta launched the Dolores Huerta Foundation in 2002, with the mission of supporting community organizers and budding political leaders.Read more.

Getty Images

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Back before “labor” became a dirty word in the minds of some politicians, “workingmen” were more appreciated.

A corporation might even honor workers in the architecture of a headquarters. (Note the photo taken in Boston’s financial district.)

These days, looking around the subway at the tired bodies heading home at night, I’ve begun to think of almost everyone as the workingman. All but a few folks who are very well off. There is hardly anyone in the middle anymore.

The people slogging back and forth, doing whatever they have to do, are unconscious of a kind of heroic aura that envelops them collectively. You can see it if you look.

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Philip Levine, 83, is a poet laureate for our times. He expresses, as the NY Times puts it, the “gritty voice of the workingman.”

“Half an hour to dress, wide rubber hip boots,
gauntlets to the elbow, a plastic helmet
like a knight’s but with a little glass window
that kept steaming over, and a respirator
to save my smoke-stained lungs. I would descend
step by slow step into the dim world
of the pickling tank and there prepare
the new solutions from the great carboys
of acids lowered to me on ropes — all from a recipe
I shared with nobody and learned from Frank O’Mera
before he went off to the bars on Vernor Highway
to drink himself to death. A gallon of hydrochloric …”

Read the Times article.

Levine’s appointment as poet laureate feels timely to me for several reasons.

While income inequality in the country has become increasingly pronounced over the last few decades, public attitudes toward the labor unions that worked to level the playing field have become markedly negative. Are unions really no longer needed? Certainly, there have been abuses of their power: for example, the way some teachers unions have protected bad teachers. And weak government officials in Central Falls (RI), having routinely succumbed to the demands of public safety workers, now find there is no money to pay the promised benefits. This summer Central Falls filed for bankruptcy.

But intensely hostile antilabor actions in Wisconsin, Ohio, and even Maine are like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

A balance between workers and other stakeholders seems to make more sense. Workers are still sometimes abused, after all. That’s why I was happy to see unions helping out foreign “cultural exchange” students to protest conditions at a Hersey’s plant in Pennsylvania last week. (I blogged about that here.)

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Last night we finally watched the DVD of “Waiting for Superman.” We had to wait until we were up for it. We knew it would be good, but painful to watch. It’s a documentary about the broken public education system in this country.

I see now why people come away from this movie saying, “It’s the unions.” But although we clearly need to find a way to dismiss bad teachers and reward good teachers, to just say, “It’s the unions,” seems too simple to me. Even if it is true, when you consider the context of poverty, unemployment, the highest rates of incarceration in the developed world, the War on Drugs, three other wars, confused approaches to immigration, Wall Street greed at the expense of the poor and middle class, antigovernment bias, and many skewed political priorities, to lay the problems of inequality in public education at any one door seems too simplistic.

Still, as the movie makes clear, we need to get rid of bad teachers immediately and make sure children get high-quality teachers before they give up hope. Lotteries to get into better schools are too cruel to too many. Activists can check out this site.

By the way, the film is very well done. We loved the creative graphics making the data real and the clips of Superman movies and past political speeches and TV shows.

Reader Asakiyune writes: “I very much agree with what you said about unions and teaching and the documentary–it bothers me when a problem as complex as that is reduced to one soundbite.”

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