The Labor Upsurge Calls Us to Rethink Organizing RulesBreaking News
tags: unions, labor, labor history, Starbucks, Amazon Labor Union
Chris Brooks is an organizer from Tennessee and a graduate of the labor studies program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He currently works as a staff writer at Labor Notes.
"Workers are reaching out to our union in unprecedented numbers,” says Alan Hanson, organizing director for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400 in the Washington, DC, area.
And they’re coming to us in a way I’ve never seen. The checklist that staff organizers have — get a list, identify leaders, make sure the organizing committee is diverse and represents all departments and classifications — these workers are coming to us and they have already done all of that. I haven’t had four successful worker-generated organizing campaigns in my entire career, and we just had four in four months.
At one of those shops, Union Kitchen, a DC-based grocery store, workers went on a three-day strike before their union was even certified, a level of militancy that seemed all but extinct but has now begun reappearing in nascent organizing campaigns. After the strike and before the election, four Union Kitchen activists were fired, Hanson says — a scorched-earth union-busting tactic that is usually the death knell for a certification vote — but workers voted overwhelmingly for their union anyway.
“People getting fired during a union organizing campaign isn’t having the same impact it had in the past,” Hanson says. “Most of these workers are moving from one shitty job to another anyway, so they figure that they might as well organize to make them better while they are there.”
Union Kitchen workers are just one small part of a much larger organizing wave that is being spurred on by workers all across the country, including at Starbucks, Dollar General, Verizon retail stores, Trader Joe’s, and Apple retail stores. According to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), union elections were up 57 percent in the first half of 2022.
We’ve seen a similar level of energy for a few years in media organizing, where the NewsGuild-CWA, the union I work for, has organized 7,486 new workers at 160 workplaces since the beginning of 2018, according to the union’s president, Jon Schleuss.
The bosses have noticed the rising organizing wave as well. In a recent earnings call with Starbucks investors, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz noted, “There is a movement in the media and across multiple industries, including the service sector, whereby fellow citizens have begun turning to labor unions as a means of gaining voice, representation and improved working conditions.”
“This movement is not related to any specific company,” Schultz continued, but is rooted in “the frustration and anxieties that Gen Z Americans are facing, having come of age during turbulent moments in our history: the 2008 global financial crisis, the Great Recession, and now the global coronavirus pandemic. These young people have completely valid concerns given today’s uncertainty and economic instability. They look around and they see the burgeoning labor movement as a possible remedy to what they are feeling.”
Even yacht-owning billionaires like Schultz can see that something is stirring in workplaces everywhere, but how do we explain this new level of worker self-activity? Especially since many of these recent examples do more than defy the odds — they defy the tenets of the slow and steady, methodical approach that experienced union organizers, myself included, have relied upon and taught to others.
The nearly overwhelming power of employers in the workplace and in society makes it very hard for workers to organize and win. To confront this power, union organizers rely on a no-shortcuts, structure-based approach that is incremental and methodical: organizers have endless conversations with workers, map the workplace, identify and recruit respected shop-floor leaders to a representative committee, get a supermajority of workers to sign union cards, and then go public and file for an election. Ideally, workers are actively encouraged to organize around widely and deeply felt issues in the workplace and to aggressively confront the boss as part of the campaign — acting like a union before officially having a union.
Under this model, you wouldn’t dream of taking a vote to unionize or call a strike if you hadn’t already assessed a supermajority of workers as being in support.
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