To The Teacher
In 2022, the labor movement in the United States has made important strides. For the first time workers at both Amazon and Starbucks have voted to unionize. Meanwhile, public support for unions reached 65% —the highest percentage since 1965.
And yet, very few workers actually enjoy the benefits of having a union themselves.
In this lesson, students read about and discuss why labor organizing remains such a difficult task, and how young organizers are developing novel tactics to defend their rights at work and build a more powerful union movement.
Ask students what they know about unions and the “labor movement.”
- What is a union?
- Why do workers form unions?
- Do students have any personal experience with unions? Do they know someone who belongs to a union?
Next ask students if they’ve seen or heard anything in the news about recent union victories. Share with students that:
- On April 1, 2022 workers voted to unionize a 8,300-worker Amazon warehouse on Staten Island—marking what the New York Times called “one of the biggest victories for organized labor in a generation.”
- In December 2021, workers in Buffalo, NY, organized the first Starbucks ever in the U.S. Since then, workers have launched organizing drives at more than 200 Starbucks stores.
Ask students to estimate:
- What percentage of Americans currently support unions?
- What percentage of U.S. workers actually belong to unions?
Write down students’ responses, and let them know that next we’ll learn and discuss the answers.
Are Unions Coming Back?
In the spring of 2022, the labor movement in the United States made important strides. For the first time, workers managed to form unions at both Amazon and Starbucks. As Vox reported on April 12, 2022:
Union membership in the U.S. has been in decline for decades, but there’s recently been a potential shift. Seventeen corporate Starbucks locations in the U.S. have voted to form a union since the end of last year, and another 170 or so are slated to vote in the coming weeks and months — all in an industry where unionizing is rare. And in early April, workers at a Staten Island Amazon warehouse also voted for a union, making them the first to organize in a company known for quashing organizing. These successful votes are historic, and they’re an optimistic sign for unions in America.
A labor union is an organized group of individuals who come together in their workplace to have a voice on the job and try to secure better conditions. Unions also have a long history of advocating for working people beyond their own members as part of a wider “labor movement.”
Unionized workers often negotiate with their bosses for better wages, improved access to health care, job security, overtime pay, paid vacation or paid family leave, or more reasonable hours. Workers who join a union are better able to stand up for their rights and exercise a say in their workplace environment.
A 2021 study published by Cornell University’s ILR Review showed that belonging to a union significantly reduced a person’s risk of living in poverty. Beyond addressing conditions in their own workplaces, many union members work within their unions to promote social justice and address issues such as racism, sexism, discrimination, and economic inequality in society at large.
In an April 2022 article for Time, reporter Raisa Bruner explored the significance of labor unions in the United States. Bruner wrote:
When Starbucks stores in upstate New York announced plans to unionize last December, labor historian Ileen Devault wasn’t sure if the U.S. was seeing the start of a trend or just a tiny blip in the history of workers’ activism in the country.
Now, as a wave of unionization has taken hold across shops and industries nationwide, Devault, a professor of labor history at Cornell University’s Industrial and Labor Relations School, knows it’s not just a blip. “It feels to me like a change in the air,” she says, and an indication of a meaningful shift in workers’ mindsets, even in the face of corporate antagonism. In 1970, union membership peaked at about 17 million nationally, over 30% of private-sector employees. By 2002, it had dropped by nearly half. Today, however, membership appears to be on the upswing.…
During unions’ heyday in the U.S… the income gap between the richest and poorest Americans shrunk considerably. “The only time that the bottom tenth of the population and the top tenth of the population have come closer together has been during those years, when unions were operating in the largest corporations in this country,” Devault says. As unionization declined in the 1970s and 80s, that income gap grew once more. Today, it is at an all-time high since tracking began over 50 years ago, based on Census Bureau data. Research shows that as much as $50 trillion has migrated into the coffers of the top 1% of income earners in the U.S., an upward redistribution of wealth that has squeezed out the middle class.
Unions are responsible for bargaining contracts between workers and employers that guarantee anything from better working conditions to higher wages—on average union households have received 10-20% better pay than non-union households, according to one study. When benefits are considered, that improvement can rise to nearly 30%. And while that is certainly a boon for the workers themselves, corporations must adjust both their balance sheets and employment practices to acquiesce to the contracts. That’s at the heart of the battle between the two forces.
Plus, unions give workers power that doesn’t always jive with the preferences of corporate leaders. “Unions aren’t just about higher wages. They are very much about workers having a say about what happens in the workplace,” Devault says. “And that’s what employers don’t like.”
The majority of Americans agree that unions have a positive impact. In 2021, the approval rating for labor unions among American workers reached 65%—the highest percentage on record since 1965. Yet despite this high popularity, actual participation in unions has remained remarkably low. According to Reuters, only 10.3% of wage and salary workers were in unions in 2021, half the percentage from 1983. As for private corporations, union membership was just 6.1% in 2021.
Why aren’t more workers forming unions? In 1935, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) made it legal for employees to join unions and engage in collective bargaining. But while the right to form a union is part of U.S. law, historically companies such as Starbucks and Amazon have spent millions of dollars to prevent their workplaces from unionizing, and they have been accused of using illegal practices to halt workers’ organizing drives.
In 2000, just six years after Amazon was founded, the company deployed aggressive efforts to block union organizing efforts. Steven Greenhouse covered the story for The New York Times in November of that year. He wrote:
Amazon.com has come out swinging in its fight to stop a new unionization drive, telling employees that unions are a greedy, for-profit business and advising managers on ways to detect when a group of workers is trying to back a union.
A section on Amazon's internal website gives supervisors anti-union material to pass on to employees, saying that unions mean strife and possible strikes and that while unions are certain to charge expensive dues, they cannot guarantee improved wages or benefits.
The website advises managers on warning signs that a union is trying to organize. Among the signs that Amazon notes are ''hushed conversations when you approach which have not occurred before,'' and ''small group huddles breaking up in silence on the approach of the supervisor.'' ….
Amazon, one of the leaders in electronic retailing, has stepped up its antiunion activities the last week after two unions and an independent organizing group announced plans to speed efforts to unionize Amazon during the holiday e-shopping rush. The organizing drive is the most ambitious one ever undertaken in the high-technology sector, where the nation's labor movement has yet to establish a foothold.…
Marcus Courtney, co-founder of the Washington Alliance of Technological Workers, an affiliate of the communications workers' union, said, ''This shows how Amazon, despite its public statements that this is a decision we let our employees make themselves and we trust them to make the right decisions, all these meetings and the internal Web site and their manuals show that Amazon management is trying to take this basic democratic decision away from the workers and make it themselves.''
Given such longstanding corporate opposition to unions, the latest victories by workers are historic, and their success could mark an important moment in the history of the U.S. labor movement.
- How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
- According to the reading, what are some reasons people join unions?
- In 2021, the approval rating for labor unions among American workers reached 65%—the highest percentage on record since 1965. At the same time, only 10.3% of Americans were union members. What are some causes of this disparity between union support and union membership?
- Why might a company want to stop a union from forming? What do you make of Amazon’s tactics in 2000 to limit organizing?
- Would you consider coming together with other employees to address a problem at work? What might be the risks of taking action in this way? What might be the advantages?
Interview with Amazon Organizer Chris Smalls
Invite students to watch this 10-minute interview with Amazon organizer Chris Smalls, on the Daily Show with Trevor Noah. After watching the video, ask students:
- What most struck you about the interview? Why?
Amazon and Starbucks Victories and the Path Ahead
While Starbucks, Amazon, and other corporations have been working to stifle unionization for decades, victories such as the formation of a union at an 8,300-worker Amazon warehouse on Staten Island on April 1, 2022, are making many workers feel more optimistic about labor’s future. The New York Times called the win at Amazon “one of the biggest victories for organized labor in a generation.”
Since the first union of Starbucks workers won in Buffalo, New York, in December 2021, organizing drives have launched at more than 200 Starbucks stores, and workers at well over a dozen locations have already voted to form unions. Employees at many other Amazon and Starbucks facilities have reached out to organizers, expressing interest in creating unions of their own.
The project of unionizing the Amazon warehouse did not happen overnight. It began in 2020 when Amazon employee Chris Smalls was fired after he spoke out against a lack of Covid health and safety precautions. Smalls decided that rather than find a new company to work for, he would begin organizing his friends who were still working at Amazon. Smalls, who is 32 years old, co-founded the Amazon Labor Union with the goals of lifting wages and improving working conditions and job security for Amazon employees.
In an April 6, 2022, article for The Guardian, reporter Gloria Oladipo covered the organizing drive. Oladipo wrote:
In a win that shocked labor organizers and observers, Smalls and his co-organizer Derrick [Palmer] succeeded where many other attempts had failed, winning a staff-wide vote to establish the union by 2,654 to 2,131.
The union is a first for Amazon, which is the second largest employer in the U.S. and fought hard to prevent the result. The company launched a multimillion-dollar campaign to stop their efforts, which began in March 2020 when Smalls led a walkout at a Staten Island warehouse over pandemic working conditions.
He was laid off the same day. Amazon alleged that Smalls violated quarantine requirements; Smalls says he was dismissed as retaliation for his protest.
His firing sparked widespread outrage on social media, including from political figures such as the Vermont senator Bernie Sanders.
Smalls went on to form the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), a group of current and former Amazon employees seeking to unionize. For the next two years, Smalls and Palmer rallied Amazon workers through a series of bonfires, barbecues, and other small gatherings near the warehouse. Smalls was a ubiquitous presence at the local bus stop, where he spoke to workers daily. The campaign raised money largely through GoFundMe donations, without major support from top labor organizations.
Meanwhile, Amazon escalated its own anti-union efforts, spending more than $4 million to fight the campaign. Hired labor consultants delivered anti-union messages to Amazon employees, while a leaked message from Amazon executives discussing their strategy for stalling the union effort described Smalls as “not smart, or articulate.”
Amazon even had Smalls and other organizers arrested for trespassing while they were delivering food and union materials to the warehouse parking lot.
But the tenacity of the organizers paid off after workers chose to unionize by a margin of more than 500 votes, out of nearly 5,000 employees.…
“The workers that I organize with are like my family now,” Smalls said. “To bring this victory to them is the best feeling in the world next to my kids’ birth.”
The surge of unionization efforts at Starbucks stores nationwide has been led by young baristas. Many are under age 30, involved in large social justice movements, and are optimistic that organizing will give them more power in the workplace. Writing for Vox, senior data reporter Rani Molla covered the recent unionization campaigns at Starbucks. On April 8, 2022, Molla wrote:
For Reese Mercado, the decision to unionize came after they watched a customer physically assault a former coworker over enforcing vaccine requirements at their Starbucks store. For Hayleigh Fagan, it was when she got a company-wide letter from the Starbucks Vice President telling employees not to unionize. For Hope Liepe, it was the hypocrisy of calling employees “partners” but not treating them that way.
Since the first corporate Starbucks location voted to unionize late last year, 17 others have voted. Only one store has voted against unionizing…. Starbucks employees around the country say they’re seeing successful union votes at other locations and thinking they could improve conditions at their own stores by doing the same….
As Liepe, an 18-year-old barista in Ithaca, New York, put it, “We want to be able to sit down with Starbucks, with the higher-up executives, and make a plan so that we, as employees, feel as valued as they say that we are.”
Starbucks said in a statement, “We are listening and learning from the partners in these stores as we always do across the country.”
While the unionizing Starbucks stores so far only represent a small portion of the chain’s roughly 9,000 company-run locations, its number belies its importance. It’s a spark of optimism in a union movement that has been in decline for decades.…
Each store’s organizing effort is an asset to the next. From these other stores, new organizers learn what works and what doesn’t, not to mention what to expect from corporate and how to respond. They know the company might make misleading claims about the price of unions. They also know the company will hold meetings during their shifts to convince them not to join the union. These are called captive audience meetings, which many workers find intimidating.
“When you connect with [other workers across the country] you get to share your experiences with them and they get to share theirs and guide you through the process,” said Caro Gonzalez, a Starbucks shift supervisor in Austin who’s majoring in advertising at the University of Texas. “That support is really huge.”
Communicating with other stores made employees realize that they have more similarities than differences. It has built an immense feeling of solidarity, so that these small shops, each with roughly 20-30 workers, feel like they’re part of something much bigger….
To begin with, Starbucks is a company that espouses progressive values, from single-origin coffee beans to LGBTQ rights. But when those values come up short — claiming that Black Lives Matter while calling the cops on Black customers, offering gender-affirming medical treatment that’s hard to access in practice, and advertising fertility treatment that can cost more than people’s paychecks — it can work against the company.
“Starbucks is quote-unquote ‘progressive,’ ‘woke,’ whatever. They give us decent benefits,” Fagan, a 22-year-old shift supervisor in Rochester, said. “But we’re literally selling our lives and time and bodies to this corporation. Tell me why I don’t deserve a living wage.”.…
Whether on video calls, chat rooms, or social media, these workers seem to land on a common theme: They’re all facing the same inequalities in work and life. The immense unfairness of the world we live in was top of mind for the young people who spoke to Recode. They’ve come into adulthood at a time of heightened inequality in everything from access to broadband to income.
“We’ve been forced into this world where we can’t afford anything, where we can’t afford to live,” said Mercado, 22, who works at a Starbucks in Brooklyn while pursuing a master’s degree in environmental science. “It’s not a difference between generations, it’s just a difference between what you’ve been given and the tools that we can use to make the change.”.…
Working through the pandemic made the situation and worker safety especially acute.
“They’ll call me a partner all they want, but corporate will allow me to die on the floor if it made them money,” said Brandi Alduk, a 22-year-old employee at a Queens Starbucks store, noting that she was exaggerating but with some truth. She said company executives rolled back Covid-19 restrictions “a little too soon and a little too brazenly, considering they were still working at home when they started loosening some of the restrictions.”
Young people, tired of drastic inequality in income and wages, are rising up and forming unions to improve their lives. Their creative and courageous actions are producing some of the biggest victories unions have seen in decades.
Whether workers will continue to secure victories in the face of union-busting campaigns is an open question, but the campaigns at Amazon and Starbucks make it clear that more and more young organizers have been inspired to speak out – and act.
- How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
- According to the reading, what prompted former Amazon employee Chris Smalls to start a union? What were some of the strategies he used to organize Amazon workers?
- What are some of the reasons Starbucks employees have decided to unionize their workplaces? Were there any quotes that you found most compelling?
- Do you think unions are becoming more popular among young people today? Why or why not?
- Do you think union victories like the ones at Amazon and Starbucks will affect your own future? If so, how? If not, why not?
Research assistance provided by Celeste Pepitone-Nahas.