A surge in retail union organizing is the surest sign yet that workers are fed up
Retail workersat companies like Starbucks, REI, and Apple are beginning to try to unionize.
- It's the result of over a decade of rising corporate profits while workers largely missed out.
It started with a Starbucks in Buffalo. Then came seven more Starbucks', an REI outpost, and an Apple store.
It's a trend born from pandemic-fueled discontent. Once hailed as "essential" and given "hero pay," workers have seen their wages flatline as company profits rise and CEO pay soars. They've worked through COVID waves, had coworkers die, and experienced harassment at the hands of customers who don't want to wear masks.
Faced with a future that promises more of the same, they've quit — or they've turned to their only option for wrenching back power from their employers:
"When individuals go through life-changing events, they often change their lives. We've had an entire society go through a life-changing event, and I think that's why we're seeing this en masse," Sylvia Allegretto, a labor economist at the University of California, Berkeley's Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, told Insider.
The pandemic was 'the spark that lit the match'
But the latest union push goes back further than the pandemic, according to Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
"Just looking at the last decade where the country has gone through quite a few shocks, the world's gone through shocks, and these corporations have not born the brunt of these shocks — but workers have," she said. "COVID was absolutely the spark that lit the match."
Each time there's been a crisis, whether it was the 2008 financial crisis or the pandemic, companies have gone to their employees and asked them to sacrifice, Bronfenbrenner said. Workers have experienced wage freezes, benefits cuts, reduced hours, or increased hours. They were asked to risk their lives in workplaces often without proper PPE and staffed with other employees who had to keep showing up even if they were feeling sick.
It was one thing for workers to have to sacrifice while the world was going through hard economic times — it's quite another to risk your life, or the life of your family, Bronfenbrenner said.
"Added to that is the fact that wages have really stagnated — the minimum wage has just not gone up enough and the cost of living keeps rising," she said. "And then they ask for just basic issues of respect in the workplace, and their employer says ... no."
David is taking on the Goliath
As of 2021, only about 4.4% of retail workers are members of a union, a rate that's been steadily declining for the past 20 years. In 2000, just over 6% of retail workers were in a union, according to US government data from 2020.
The decline can be chalked up to the anti-union playbooks that corporations pull out anytime there's union activity, no matter how small, Berkeley's Allegretto said.
At the first Starbucks location in Buffalo that unionized in 2021, for example, employees who were part of the organizing committee accused the company of union-busting. The National Labor Relations Board has since issued a complaint against Starbucks over its treatment of employees at a store in Phoenix who supported the union, though the company has said claims of anti-union activity are "categorically false."
Amazon has also employed anti-union tactics to deter workers from joining forces, workers say. The NLRB accused the company of illegally "threatening, surveilling, and interrogating" Staten Island warehouse employees who attempted to organize and overturned the results of a union vote in Alabama. Workers at that warehouse are now preparing to vote on unionizing for a second time.
But workers have continued organizing, and as a result, union drives at retailers across the country are slowly spreading. At Starbucks, for example, more than 150 locations have filed for union elections since December, and while it's just a fraction of the chain's 9,000 stores nationwide, it's had an obvious domino effect, Bronfenbrenner said.
"Union victory is contagious," she said. "Once this small boy with the slingshot can knock over the giant, it's like, 'oh, we could all do that.'"
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