Earlier this month, a Starbucks store in upstate New York became the coffee giant’s store first unionized workplace in the United States, workers voted 19 to 8 in favor of a union despite Starbucks’ efforts to quash the move.
The Starbucks news is part of a growing organized labor movement across the country, amid a labor shortage and record numbers of employees leaving their jobs.
Researchers say workers realized the benefits of organizing during the pandemic, as unionized industries suffered lower rates of job losses. As a result, despite the overall loss of jobs during the pandemic, the share of workers represented by unions has increased nationwide. In Illinois, the share of workers represented by unions increased from 14.7% in 2019 to 15.2% in 2020. This is the highest year-on-year jump in the state since 2013. Additionally , surveys also show that support for unions has increased among non-union members. workers and the general public.
WBEZ’s Esther Yoon-Ji Kang spoke with Robert Bruno, professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He wonders if the Chicago area will see more organizing efforts, how unions could have protected Amazon workers who were killed when a tornado hit a warehouse in upstate Edwardsville, and whether the labor movement will continue to grow in 2022.
Below is a transcript of the conversation, edited for clarity and brevity.
WBEZ: Just days after Starbucks workers in Buffalo, New York, voted to unionize, Boston workers filed for union election. Will the Chicago area see similar efforts?
Bruno: I would expect them to, given the high union density in Chicago. It’s a city that understands union organization, and I think there is a real receptivity toâ¦ organization. And given the density of stores here in the Chicago area, I’d be surprised if there wasn’t a recruiting drive afterwards.
Have you heard of such efforts around here?
You know, not with Starbucks. I believe Colectivo Coffee, which is headquartered in Milwaukee, has stores in Chicago, and there has been some organizational effort there.
Unions seem to be gaining momentum at the moment. How does this relate to the pandemic, as opposed to the natural ebb and flow of workers’ rights movements?
I think it’s a combination, right? Any organizational push requires changes in material conditions – the series of events, what is happening in the labor market, in the market. And clearly, the labor shortage caused by the pandemic gives a little more fuel to workers who organize themselves. The appalling working conditions during the pandemic revealed a lot of abuse, so this is a reason for workers to organize. So clearly, we have identified a few immediate causes. But it’s also part of a larger evolution, I think, of labor organizing, where it can take years – it can take decades – to organize particular industries, and the labor movement clearly understands that it has to. organize where jobs are created. So it’s going to be in the logistics industry, it’s going to be in a lot of retail. So I think it’s part of something immediate, but there’s a change, kind of a long-term evolution that’s taking place.
A tornado ravaged an Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville, Ill., Last week, and six people died. The retail, wholesale and department store union accuses Amazon of demanding workers keep working during this major tornado. This group is trying to organize Amazon workers in different parts of the United States. What could have been different in Edwardsville if the workers had been unionized?
What would be typical, if the site were unionized, is that the union and management would have negotiated certain safety protocols. There probably would have been a health and safety committee. There would be certain provisions in their employment contract, which can be enforced under the law, which would have dealt with health and safety. There would certainly also have been routine drills, health and safety drills, fire drills. For example: what do you do if a tornado occurs?
There would have been constant training of new employees to understand what the safety concerns were. There would have been union officials there who would have been responsible for ensuring that if the workers wanted to leave, they could leave without fear of losing their jobs. So that would have made a significant difference in terms of preparation. It is unclear how many lives would have been saved under these specific conditions, but we do know that unionized workplaces are significantly safer for workers than non-unionized facilities.
McDonald’s is headquartered here in Chicago, and it made headlines with workers complaining about their rights and working conditions. Is this a business where you see potential organizing efforts?
Big fast food companies like McDonald’s are sort of serial violators of workers’ rights. And so that makes them targets for the organization. It’s a challenge to do that because they have this mix of business and franchise. Businesses can kind of wipe their hands and say we have nothing to do with what’s going on, you know, franchise and franchise can have a narrow margin, and you have less employees. And so instead of unionizing, because we haven’t seen it yet, you’ve seen a lot of organizational pressure on McDonald’s. And it’s interesting McDonald’s and not just McDonald’s. But Walmart, for example – even Amazon – we’ve seen workers’ starting wages go up. And you’ve seen a lot of effort from state and city lawmakers who have passed minimum wage ordinances. Thus, many workers have obtained at least wage increases as a result of public policy and political pressure. But yes, the Walmarts of the world, the big retailers, the fast food industry, there are a lot of people hired in this field, and it’s largely non-unionized. And so, there will be continued efforts to change workplace practices there, there is no doubt about it.
How do unions fit into the larger picture of the workforce right now, with so many people leaving their jobs in what many are calling the ‘big resignation? “
I fully understand why this term is used. If you will, I have come to call it the “Great Resistance” or the “Grand Refus” because the workers to know that they are going to work. They know they have to work. I mean, unless you can retire, you go to work. But you want to work safely; you want to be paid well; you want better quality work. And that’s where the labor movement comes in.
Because workers who might never have thought about joining a union or had been resistant, or perhaps just indifferent, when they realize that their jobs really aren’t that safe, or that they are not treated so well. Or, “Boy, I’m really not getting paid close to what I need to be paid, and there isn’t much cooperation from the employer in terms of childcare and balance between work and family. It’s pretty obvious that I can’t do these things on my own. So I have to increase this quality. And one way to do it is to do it collectively. And doing it collectively means you form a union and negotiate a contract. So I think unions are becoming the solution to this problem.
What do you predict for 2022?
I think you will continue to see a lot of resistance from workers to work in low quality jobs. I also think we’re going to see employers a bit more responsive. We’ve already started to see wages increase in some of the lower paying occupations, so I think we’ll see some improvement in that regard.
I think the organizing efforts will continue. It’s difficult under US labor law – even under better conditions for workers, it is difficult to form a union. The law really gives the employer the upper hand. And we don’t know what’s going to happen with the elections and the midterm elections in 2022, and how it looks. But I think we should expect the workplace to be at least slightly improved for workers and unions to be a big part of this story. Certainly, Amazon will continue to be the subject of a lot of heavy planning.
Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities office. Follow her on twitter @estheryjkang.