Starbucks workers rally and march in Seattle, WA, on April 23, 2022. Photo credit: Elliot Stoller / Creative Commons 2.0.
On May 3, I—and about a hundred million other women—was reeling in the aftermath of Associate Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s contemptuous assault on women’s bodily autonomy. We had learned about it that day because of a leaked draft decision that will eliminate the right to safe, legal abortions in at least half of U.S. states. On Twitter, I had seethed, raged and mulled with strangers. Then I noticed twelve rays of light lifting up my Twitter feed.
In one day, workers at twelve Starbucks stores had unionized. A new labor movement was not just being born but growing to maturity with stunning speed.
This new movement was galvanizing workers in ways I had not seen since the 1970s, a cause for cheer in the gloomy heart of this old labor historian. Starbucks in Long Island and Florida, even in districts friendly to Donald Trump, had voted to unionize. So too had Starbucks stores in purple Arizona and bright red Oklahoma. That very day, a Starbucks in South Brooklyn, near Coney Island, for almost a century the home of immigrants, labor organizers, Communists, and militant housewives, also voted to unionize.
On the darkest day for women’s rights in this country in half a century, young workers were refusing to lose hope and claiming their rights.
In Boston, where six Starbucks have now unionized, union fever had spread to independent coffee shops. Baristas in small shops are also unionizing in Minneapolis, Philadelphia, and Nashville. On May 1, International Workers’ Day, unionized baristas marched through Cambridge, Massachusetts, vowing to organize food service workers across the Boston area. Since then, Starbucks workers have organized, picketed, and gone on strike in Illinois, in Santa Cruz and Long Beach, California, in Portland and Eugene, Oregon, in several Virginia towns and in Columbia, South Carolina.
In the second half of 2021, Starbucks workers had filed only fourteen petitions with the National Labor Relations Board for union representation, but by May 11, 2022, Starbucks union organizers estimated that they were on track to unionize 6,400 workers in 230 stores. Between January 1 and May 10, they filed two petitions a day. Since the first Starbucks unionized in February in Buffalo, the coffee giant’s “partners” have won between 80 and 90 percent of their elections. And the movement is continuing to spread like wildfire, even though Starbucks has fought back, hiring a famous union-busting law firm (Littler-Mendelson), firing 20 union organizers and challenging union elections across the country on technicalities.
Like most successful movements, the organizing drive picked up speed as it succeeded. In the beginning of April, there were eight unionized Starbucks. By June 6, 116 stores had unionized, and hundreds more had filed for recognition. But Starbucks may be part of a larger trend. At the beginning of May, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) estimated that applications for union representation are up 57 percent nationally over 2021. Starbucks alone accounts for a quarter of those petitions, a remarkable statistic since only 1 percent of the food and drink industry was unionized at the beginning of the year. Young Starbucks organizers told me they learned about trade unions working for the Bernie Sanders campaign.
Retail and tech are not far behind the baristas: workers at Amazon, REI, Google, Apple, Target, Ralph’s supermarkets, and even supposedly worker-loving Trader Joe’s are signing union cards. In March, workers at a Manhattan REI unionized the first retail outlet in that chain. In May, Trader Joe’s workers in Massachusetts and workers throughout the Target chain announced union drives. Kansas City Google fiber location employee joined the Alphabet Workers Union, formed in Silicon Valley the year before.
Some of these unions are fighting for rights that the Supreme Court majority seeks to dismantle. Atlanta Apple store workers filed for a union election and Manhattan Apple store workers formed an independent union called Fruit Stand Workers United, affiliated with SEIU’s Workers United, also the umbrella under which Starbucks workers are organizing. Workers United bills itself as “A Labor Union for Today’s Workplace Issues.” Among those are not only higher pay, but also better health coverage, freedom from sexual harassment and unwanted touching in the workplace, and strong protections against racial, sex, and gender-identity discrimination.
They are also going after industry giants previously seen as untouchable. In early April, a feisty 32-year-old African American organizer named Christian Smalls and 29 other young union activists declared victory after a union vote in Staten Island Amazon warehouse JFK8. Amazon had fired Smalls, charging him with violating COVID-19 protocols, and their union-busting law firm, Morgan-Lewis, wrote him off.
They shouldn’t have. Smalls and a team of organizers brought food, medical supplies and even weed to daily consultations with a warehouse full of workers reeling from Amazon’s failure to provide sufficient Personal Protective Equipment or to properly follow CDC COVID-19 protocols. Against the conventional wisdom of almost everyone, their group succeeded in unionizing 8,000 workers.
It was one of the biggest victories for labor in a generation, although their independent workers’ association, the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) has not yet had another win. They did not garner enough votes to unionize a nearby Staten Island Amazon warehouse. And, while the second vote at Amazon’s plant in Bessemer, Alabama remains too close to call, it appears that the union has been defeated there again.
Still, ALU Vice President Derrick Palmer assured a Brooklyn crowd on May 2 that their movement was just beginning. “We started a revolution at JFK8,” Palmer, “by winning.” Palmer and Smalls told the cheering crowd to prepare for a long struggle: Amazon warehouse workers across the country have contacted them for help organizing unions. They have met with the Teamsters Union leadership, which offered financial and legal support. And Smalls has teamed up with the fiery flight attendants’ union president Sara Nelson.
Smalls is also winning the messaging war. On May 4–5, he was invited to testify about Amazon at a Senate Banking Committee hearing. Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC) opened the hearing by railing at committee chair, Bernie Sanders (D-VT), that he had convened a “dangerous” hearing. “You’ve determined that Amazon is a piece of crap company,” Graham fumed, and accused Sanders of holding hearings only because he believed that “anybody who makes money is bad.”
When Smalls rose to testify, in his “Eat the Rich” satin baseball jacket, he blasted Graham right back. “It’s a workers’ issue,” he said, “and we’re the ones that are suffering . . . You should listen because we represent your constituents as well.”
A few days later, Smalls, a Starbucks organizer, and several other union activists were invited to meet President Biden in the Oval Office. Smalls wore his trademark black Yankees cap and a red and black union jacket. Biden shook his hand, smiled, and said: “You’re trouble, man.” Smalls replied, “Yeah I am.”
But the President continued: “You’re my kind of trouble. Let’s not stop.”
Biden has been the most pro-union president in a generation and his National Labor Relations Board General Counsel, Jennifer Abruzzo, has proven herself an ally of the new labor organizers. On April 7, 2022, she issued a memorandum in which she ruled that “mandatory meetings in which employees are forced to listen to employer speech concerning the exercise of their statutory labor rights, including captive audience meetings, [are] a violation of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).” On April 25, NLRB officials ruled that Starbucks was in violation of the NLRA when it fired seven employees for organizing. The NLRB ordered Starbucks to “make whole” the fired workers. In early May the board launched a national lawsuit against the coffee giant for firing union-supporting workers. Since that time, the NLRB has hit Starbucks with 50 violations related to attempted union busting.
The workers’ uprisings of this past spring 2022 are generational, much like the summer 2020 protests for racial justice after the police murder of George Floyd. According to some observers, teens from one in twelve American families participated in that summer of marches against racialized police violence. Similarly, this labor movement is a campaign run by teens, 20-somethings, and a few leaders like Smalls in their early 30s. The average age of unionized workers at Amazon JFK8 is 26.
The Starbucks union organizers are younger still. Laila Dalton, a barista who rocketed to national fame when Starbucks fired her for organizing, is 19 years old.
A so-called “Zoomer,” Dalton is part of a generation of “digital natives,” one epitomized by the organization Gen Z for Change, many of whose leaders are still in high school. This spring, under the slogan “Change is Brewing,” Gen Z for Change hackers flooded the Starbucks job portal with 140,000 phony applications to Starbucks locations where organizers had been fired and jobs advertised. They also crashed a job portal at Ralph’s, a grocery chain, in March of this year when 48,000 workers went on strike and the company advertised for replacement workers.
In each case, says 19-year-old Gen Z for Change director Elise Joshi, union workers on the ground reached out to them and they responded.
Reproductive rights, labor justice, and union rights are intimately linked, say these teenage digital hacktivists. And, as digital natives, they have designed their own tools of struggle.
Gen Z for Change has sent thousands of fake reports to tip lines in Texas that were set up by the state to encourage citizen bounty hunters to report the “crime” of abortion. Gen Z hackers have used this tactic as well to flood a tip line in Virginia set up by Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin for parents to report the teaching of Critical Race Theory in the state’s public schools.
Not surprisingly, this generational revolution also includes tens of thousands of poorly paid 20-something graduate student workers. Since fall 2021, there have been successful union campaigns at Harvard, NYU, Brown, Georgetown, Fordham, MIT, and Columbia. Strikes are ongoing at Indiana University, and the University of Illinois, Chicago. At Columbia, 5,000 graduate students affiliated with the United Auto Workers struck for an unprecedented ten weeks and won all their demands in January 2021 including raises of up to 30 percent, annual increases, dental coverage, child-care stipends, and the right to neutral third- party arbitration in cases of sexual harassment and discrimination.
At Fordham, graduate student workers affiliated with Communications Workers of America voted to form a union this past February: when 800 adjunct and part time faculty unionized in 2018, they won 60-90 percent increases. Graduate students insist that living in New York on the sparse pay Fordham offers is impossible. Similarly, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) 3,800 graduate students affiliated with the United Electrical Workers formed the MIT Student Union in April. But raises are not the only issue. As activist Ki-Jana Carter said: “We all deserve to have dignity.”
According to the students at my home institution, Dartmouth College, dignity is core to their decision to unionize, too. The 52 student dining workers who formed a union in March became one of only six undergraduate student workers unions in the country, including at Grinnell, Kenyon, and Columbia. At Dartmouth, undergraduate dining workers—many of whom are people of color and some of whom are international—had to wait daily on long lines of mostly white students without proper COVID-19 protection or sick pay. They wanted stronger COVID protection protocols and a raise to $20 hourly wage.
Once more than 70 percent of Dartmouth student dining workers had signed union cards, they asked the college to voluntarily recognize their union. When Dartmouth replied that the students would have to hold an official NLRB election before the college would recognize them, the Student Worker Coalition of Dartmouth (SWCD) registered, voted, and won a unanimous victory. Unlike Kenyon and Grinnell, Dartmouth officials (who hired another well-known union busting law form, Morgan Joy of Boston) did recognize the union, and are launching into their first contract negotiations as this goes to press.
When I interviewed Ian Scott, one of the 19-year-old leaders of the Student Worker Collective at Dartmouth, I asked him what had made the students decide to unionize. Scott, the grandson of a Civil Rights–era Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organizer, nephew of a Black Panther, and son of a Dartmouth anti-Apartheid activist from the 1980s, answered, “People do not live with indignity forever. At some point something was going to happen.” Another Dartmouth student organizer said, “I guess our generation didn’t get the memo about labor unions being dead.”
In Dartmouth’s case, the pandemic played a significant role in mobilizing students. In Scott’s freshman year, 2020–2021, when the college he said, “that whole situation, that whole year was incredibly defeating. On top of all the things student workers were going through, there were suicides and mental health crises.” Scott started fighting for healthier, more dignified conditions for students under the auspices of the Dartmouth Student Union, which is not a labor organization. “There were so many letter-writing campaigns and advocacy work on a range of issues and the college could just say no,” he said. A labor union, however, “gives us more leverage.”
The biggest issue for student workers was demanding sick pay when they contract COVID on the job. Dartmouth resisted at first but, when the organizing began in earnest, the college granted time and a half hazard pay to all student dining workers. This was a victory. However, Scott said, students knew that the college could take hazard pay away whenever they wished. (That was the issue that had sparked the Ralph’s grocery workers’ strike.)
“If we get sick pay in a contract,” he said, “you can’t just take it away. It’s in our contract. If you do try, it’s a ULP,” Scott smiled, using the popular worker abbreviation for Unfair Labor Practice. Understanding how to file a ULP with the National Labor Relations Board is, they say, empowering. And students are starting to file ULPs with some frequency.
But the SWCD has not become so bogged down in their own contract negotiations that they have lost sight of the larger struggle to lift the masks that colleges, universities, and progressive corporations use to “cover the ugly face of capitalism.” They are not struggling for mere “reform,” Scott says. His generation has, he believes, “a historic duty to fight for the American working class and the American labor movement.”
“People thought Starbucks would never be organized, that we were living in a post-union era, that labor and the fight for labor in America was done and dusted,” Scott said. But “nothing is static. Everything has growth and decay. And right now, I think that capitalism is decaying. Maybe now the new can finally be born.”
Annelise Orleck is a professor of history at Dartmouth College.