This past December, a Starbucks store in Buffalo, New York, made waves as one of the first of the company in the U.S. to unionize. A few of the Buffalo workers who led this movement inspired others also working for the chain. Now, some 250 Starbucks stores across the States are running elections for unionizing. What’s more, other major international corporations, like Amazon, are joining the movement. And whether these companies always receive majority vote for unionized labor, the message remains clear: workers are demanding better conditions.
But what’s driving this sudden wave of workers joining or creating unions? What has inspired this movement? And what changes can we expect from these movements in industries such as retail and food and beverage? Let’s start with the basics.
What is a union for workers?
Labor unions, or trade unions, are organizations of workers who band together for improvements in their working conditions and/or compensation. Unions can help workers negotiate with their employers to improve safety standards through increased paid or unpaid meal breaks, provided personal protection equipment (PPE), or the right to refuse unsafe work. They can also negotiate pay rate, weekly hours, and even benefits, including health and dental, paid vacation, and retirement plans. One particularly growing concern, however, is the cause for dismissal. That is, many have faced unjust dismissal or a lack of scheduled working hours for simply discussing the possibility of a union. So, not only are unions important for improving worker conditions, they are also beneficial for defending those mistreated in exercising basic human rights.
Depending on the workplace and the bargaining unit that helps workers with negotiations, labor unions can be relatively small or they can work with and help thousands of workers within one company. Regardless, unions must always be based in democracy. This means that members are elected to all volunteer positions, from committee members to those leading these movements within the organization. This is particularly crucial for hearing concerns from all workers, regardless of position hierarchy or pay.
What is driving the need for unionized labor?
Unions even within Starbucks stores are not necessarily new. Many workers across the world are already part of a union, including those in Chile and New Zealand. But this resurge in unions comes at a particularly crucial time for many of these workers. That is, following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, front-line workers in service, warehouse organizations, and even factory workplaces, experienced a surge in health-related concerns. Many organizations enforced unsafe work practices, like enforcing un-distanced working spaces and a lack of proper PPE. Others, like many Starbucks workers, faced physical and emotional abuse from customers, particularly when enforcing company-wide vaccination or mask mandates.
And although labor unions have lost some momentum in the past few years, they are continuing to become crucial for worker pay. Especially with inflation, many workers are working full-time hours and are still earn less than what is needed to match the cost of living. This concern is particularly common in labor-based positions, like tradespeople or those in service and retail industries. And even if their work is specialized, many high-ups see these workers as replaceable. This is particularly where unions can protect those who would otherwise be unheard.
Who benefits from unionized labor?
To employers, particularly high-ups in companies, unions seem to be a burden. Many have said unions prevent clear and direct communication with workers. Some even go as far as union-busting or forcing employees to attend anti-union information sessions to work against these efforts. But the reality is, if workers are not making ends-meet, or are not feeling safe and happy in their workplace, unions will only make the workplace better. Workers could be replaced infinitely, and companies would still lose employees to poor working conditions and compensation. With this said, employers cannot simply fire workers for wanting to unionize. There are laws in the U.S. and Canada that protect workers’ rights to unionize and safe working conditions. And while some companies continue to work against unionizing workers, you can actually benefit from having one.
Unions are extremely effective at improving employee satisfaction while also encouraging employee retention. And Starbucks is a perfect example of this. Particularly since the food and beverage industry has a high turn-over rate, unions can actually encourage employees to stay in a position for years at a time.
So, what do you do if you’re an employer and you don’t want your employees to unionize? Put simply, treat them like a union would. Fight for their livable wage, health and dental coverage, and their right to safe work.