After a four-decade-long onslaught of anti-union propaganda at the hands of mega-corporations, we are finally beginning to see a resurgence of the American labor movement. Labor unions have historically used the power of collective bargaining to demand many of the rights we now take for granted. Things like the 40-hour workweek, overtime pay, workplace safety regulations, and the right to organize and negotiate with employers are just a few examples of the rights that labor organizers of the early 1900s fought and died for.
Allowing workers the ability to organize and advocate for themselves is one of, if not the single-most, crucial aspects of our capitalist economy. Unions level the playing field for workers, giving them leverage against their employers so they can confront greedy bosses and executives as an organized front and demand equal treatment and pay.
This fact was highlighted by Starbucks barista and organizer, Will Westlake, at our recent conference, Oligarchs Vs. All of Us, where he mentioned that our fight for higher wages is impossible without stronger unions. (You can watch his presentation along with the rest of our conference here).
Following Mr. Westlake’s experience at Starbucks, it is no surprise that economic inequality has risen in America as union membership has declined. Thankfully, however, workers all around the country are fighting back against this unequal reality. Support for labor unions is at a 50-year high, with one poll finding that no less than 68% of Americans approve of unions. Workers at big-box companies like Starbucks, Amazon, and REI are coming together to organize their workplaces and leading the charge to form unions from within.
As hard proof that when the working class bands together they can enact change in their workplaces, an Amazon distribution center in Staten Island voted to form the company’s very first union last week. The effort came after months of fighting on the part of organizers. Other Amazon locations are paying attention to these efforts: workers at 100 other facilities have said they want to unionize. Of course, Amazon, the second largest employer in America, won’t go down without a fight. Last week it filed an appeal of the historic union vote in New York and called for a do-over of the election.
It’s no secret that Amazon, which employs no fewer than 1.5 million Americans, is notorious for the mistreatment of their employees in their pursuit of wealth and success. They have been caught short-changing their employee’s paychecks, instituting grueling warehouse conditions, engaging in strict monitoring practices, and erroneously taking away employees’ benefits.
Under these conditions, it’s no surprise that Amazon employees have begun to take a stand. But they aren’t the only ones unionizing at big-box corporations.
The first Starbucks recently voted to unionize in Buffalo, NY last month. Since then, another 15 stores have joined in forming their own unions, and 183 stores have applied to hold elections. These “Next Generation” unionization efforts across the country are largely being spearheaded by people of color, immigrants, and young people as society is waking up to the need for collective bargaining power on the part of workers.
However, Starbucks is no stranger to union-busting and has been accused of anti-union intimidation techniques and has since been warned that their approach could be met with NLRB lawsuits. Despite this, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz just can’t keep his foot out of his mouth, going so far as to tell a union organizer “Why don’t you go somewhere else?” in response to being called out on his anti-union rhetoric. Similarly, Mr. Westlake was forced to attend an anti-union meeting in November where he was told that he could lose his benefits if his store tried to unionize. While this practice will hopefully soon be banned, this is only one of the ways in which employers discourage workplace organization.
After nearly a decade of inaction on the federal government’s part, workers are now rising up to demand higher wages and better working conditions. This is good not just for them but also for our economy as a whole. That’s why we unequivocally support these union campaigns and are thrilled to see union activity popping up in companies under the leadership of some of the nation’s wealthiest. When workers are doing better and have more money in their pockets, everyone benefits.
If we want a stable, prosperous economy in America, we need organized labor.