Credit: Elliot Stoller, Flickr
By now, the remarkable success of the Starbucks Workers United (SBWU) and Amazon Labor Union (ALU) organizing campaigns has been well documented. They have shown that unions can take advantage of the opportunity created by the pandemic labor market; that even the wealthiest, most anti-union corporations are not invincible; that many young workers want bold leadership from unions and the opportunity to lead; that media stories about organizing can make headline news and explain labor law; that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) can use these campaigns to rewrite the rules on union organizing; and that at least some unions are adaptable and organizationally flexible enough to accommodate themselves to the young workers leading this insurgent labor movement. Many of these developments would have been almost unthinkable two years ago—before the pandemic, most would have considered hundreds of victories at Starbucks unimaginable—and they would almost certainly not have happened in the absence of these campaigns.
But the chasm between the optimism generated by these campaigns and the long-term decline of unions at the national level has never seemed so vast. According to a 2022 Gallup poll, unions have a 71 percent public approval rating, despite the movement’s organizational weakness, and young workers have even higher rates of approval. But they have extremely low rates of union membership—for example, only 4.2 percent of sixteen-to-twenty-four-year-olds are members of unions, and in the food service industry, the union density is only 1.2 percent—because they mostly work in “young workplaces”—Starbucks, REI, Chipotle, Trader Joe’s, and so on—that are overwhelmingly nonunion. Weak laws and strong employer opposition mean that it is unlikely to change anytime soon.
. . . [U]nions have entered the media mainstream—despite labor’s declining organizational weakness—and become a matter of general interest, something I never thought was possible.
It is daunting when one thinks about all the factors that have contributed to union decline over the past several decades, but these two remarkable union campaigns—and especially the organizing success of the SBWU drive, which has now won a remarkable 240 elections—provide us with a model for revitalization and suggest that the situation is not entirely hopeless.
Could Union Revitalization Really Happen?
Most observers believe that meaningful union revival requires stronger legal protection for the right to form a union, but every effort to achieve labor law reform over the past forty-five years has ended in abysmal failure. Looking back on the Employee Free Choice Act during the early years of the Obama administration, failure was almost certain: it was a quiescent period, with no one paying attention to the issue.
But the SBWU and ALU campaigns have taken a wrecking ball to these obstacles—it is no longer a quiescent period in union organizing, which could still spread even more broadly across the low-wage service sector—and a significant portion of the public is finally paying attention to labor rights issues. In nine months, these campaigns have created an environment in which one can imagine how meaningful union revitalization could happen. This piece focuses on how the SBWU provides one potential model for union revitalization in the United The Media Is the Messenger Organizing campaigns at Starbucks and Amazon have been unique in that they have put unionbusting on the front pages of the nation’s biggest newspapers week after week. People have a very direct relationship with these companies—and what happens there generates great media and social media copy. This attention has injected a unique vividness into the battle over union recognition. The stories have provided a concrete language with which to talk about organizing—you want to understand employer coercion, look at what Starbucks and Amazon are doing to their workers—if only union leaders and their congressional allies have the wherewithal to make the most of that opportunity States.
Media coverage of unions had been building gradually prior to the pandemic, that is, labor activism among online media workers, tech workers, and non-profit and cultural workers, but the pandemic put workplace issues in the spotlight, and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) campaign in Bessemer, Alabama, which started in the fall of 2020 really first made union-busting a frontpage story.
Thus, unions have entered the media mainstream—despite labor’s declining organizational weakness—and become a matter of general interest, something I never thought was possible. Between the union’s 240 election wins, Starbucks’ 100 plus unlawful firings, multiple store closures, weekly strike waves, Howard Schultz’s public statements, and eyepopping NLRB rulings, SBWU has kept union organizing in the news every week for almost a year. Moreover, the extensive media coverage of Starbucks and Amazon—coverage that really started with the RWDSU’s campaign in Amazon in Bessemer—has helped demystify the process of organizing for the public and provided an education on how our labor laws (don’t) work.
. . . [T]he extensive media coverage of Starbucks and Amazon—coverage that really started with the RWDSU’s campaign in Amazon in Bessemer—has helped demystify the process of organizing for the public and provided an education on how our labor laws (don’t) work.
The SBWU and ALU campaigns have also helped reinvigorate the labor beat at major media outlets. For example, Lauren Gurley, who rose to prominence with outstanding coverage of Amazon’s union-busting at Bessemer while at Vice, is now the labor reporter at the (Jeff Bezos–owned) Washington Post. Josh Eidelson at Bloomberg, Noam Scheiber at the New York Times, and Steven Greenhouse at several outlets have written widely on the SBWU and ALU campaigns. Without this attention, labor law would never become a live political issue and meaningful reform would be impossible.
The NLRB needs courageous organizing drives like Starbucks and Amazon to justify bold actions on its part . . .
Moreover, the Starbucks and Amazon campaigns are allowing the NLRB’s general counsel to upend the existing rules on organizing—which massively favor anti-union corporations—to try to provide workers a fair choice, as the law requires: The NLRB has required that Howard Schultz record a video statement committing to the workers’ right to unionize and held that group and individual captive audience meetings are “inherently coercive”—an effort to separate the right of employers to speak from their ability to force workers to listen (thus taking the “captive” out of captive audience) with the ultimate objective of making employer speech no more compelling than union speech. The NLRB needs courageous organizing drives like Starbucks and Amazon to justify bold actions on its part, and these are just two of several major actions it has taken that apply to collective bargaining.
They Make Winning Look Easy, but It Really Isn’t
SBWU has managed to replicate union victories at an anti-union superstar corporation in a way that has never been done before; thus, it arguably offers the most promising model for union revitalization. However, critics pointed out that Starbucks stores are “very small” (the average size of the bargaining unit has been twenty-six workers) with the implication that winning small units is easy. True, most of the 70 plus percent of NLRB elections unions win every year are in small units, with fifty or fewer workers. Few union victories are in bargaining units composed of hundreds of workers; virtually none are in bargaining units in the thousands; maybe one per decade is at a bargaining unit as large as Amazon’s JKF8 facility in Staten Island, which has more than eight thousand workers. But not all NLRB elections at smaller units are alike.
Starbucks has fought for every vote . . . in the smallest of stores, and has contested, when possible, the eligibility of every pro-union voter.
SBWU’s approximately 240 NLRB victories—54 of them unanimous, many more by overwhelming majorities—have made winning at the stores look easy. But it really isn’t. By September 20, 2022, the NLRB had conducted more than 300 elections: SBWU has won 240 (80 percent) and lost 52 (17 percent); 3 percent were “challenge determinative.” Starbucks has fought for every vote in every store, even in the smallest of stores, and has contested, when possible, the eligibility of every pro-union voter. It has spent millions of dollars on dozens of Littler Mendelson attorneys to fight through NLRB proceedings, as well as using the world’s largest PR firm, Edelman, to help craft its antiunion messaging. Every single union victory has been hard-fought.
Starbucks was a meticulously planned union campaign, but not in the way Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz believes—its success was always dependent on the dynamism of rank-and-file worker-organizers. Richard Bensinger, Jaz Brisack, and other organizers associated with Workers United Upstate New York had mentored and supported worker-organizers in other coffee shops, primarily through Zoom. But even in Buffalo in fall 2021, the success of the organizing depended largely on the commitment of several charismatic long-term Starbucks employees such as Michelle Eisen—the de facto president of SBWU—at the Elmwood village store (where Jaz worked until being forced out in September), which was the first to vote to unionize, and Lexi Rizzo at Genesee Street, the second union store. And the campaign only succeeded in Buffalo because most rank-and-file workers supported unionization even after being subjected to one of the most intense and unlawful union-busting campaigns—conducted by dozens of managers, including several senior corporate officers—in recent memory.
Leading SBWU organizers and Starbucks corporate knew that if SBWU won just one store in Buffalo, the campaign would generate a tsunami of media attention—and thus had the potential to spread nationwide. In fact, the campaign spread to Mesa, Arizona; Knoxville, Tennessee; and Boston, even before the first elections in Buffalo in December, and the campaign subsequently largely succeeded due to the dynamism of its intrepid rank-and-file worker-organizers: Michelle Hejduk in Mesa, Maggie Carter in Knoxville, and Kylah Clay in Boston—who found the campaign (rather than the other way round) and were trained and mentored through Zoom and subsequently supported by more experienced Buffalo-based organizers, before they took over organizing responsibilities in their own regions.
Developing a replicable model that allows a union to win 240 elections at a single, wealthy, anti-union corporate giant is a singular achievement in U.S. union history. Perhaps the closest historical analogy is the Amalgamated Meat Cutters union organization of stores such as A&P or Safeway in the 1930s, which were at the time structured like Starbucks, with hundreds of small stores, under centralized, corporate management. However, as David Brody explains in The Butcher Workmen, union victories at those grocery chains were more about gaining recognition from employers than about organizing workers, and those companies did not have anything like Starbucks’ resources, sophistication, or willingness to break the law.
Moreover, there is something undeniably inspirational about SBWU winning these stores election by election, each one generating more media coverage, more joyous victory photos, and more TikTok videos. It was never about their size, always about their ability to excite young workers and inspire others to want to organize their own workplaces. (If it were primarily about size, even winning 2,000 Starbucks stores would be meaningless when one considers the depth of the crisis in private sector union membership.)
Other unions have tried and (thus far) failed at Starbucks in recent months; their campaigns were far too much like “traditional” union campaigns, dependent on full-time, external organizers. Sometimes a high-profile successful campaign such as SBWU can make the company too alluring a target for other unions, especially for those who represent similar kinds of workers. For example, in April, a United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) local in Wisconsin (UFCW represents workers at Starbucks “franchise stores” located within some supermarkets) petitioned for elections at three stores in the Madison area. The day the petition was public, I spoke with a leading Starbucks worker-organizer: “It’s a very different kind of campaign [it lacked the worker-driven dynamism of the SBWU campaign]—they will likely get crushed.” In the only election conducted so far, the UFCW local lost 21-1. An SEIU local also lost at a store, albeit by a narrower margin, in Wichita, Kansas, at which the workers had started organizing with SBWU but then decided to switch unions before petitioning for an election.
Starbucks union activists found a union, in Workers United Upstate New York, that has allowed them to run the decentralized, worker-driven organizing they wanted, and . . . provided it with significant support
In short, almost every one of the 240 SBWU victories so far has been the result of tough battles, and the campaign would likely not have succeeded were it not for its unusually strong worker-driven character. Starbucks union activists found a union, in Workers United Upstate New York, that has allowed them to run the decentralized, worker-driven organizing they wanted, and it has also provided it with significant support. Unfortunately, many parts of the labor movement appear unable to change the (largely unsuccessful) way they have done things for decades—and few other unions arguably have the capability to run grassroots campaigns like these. However, they can do much more to support and facilitate such dynamic worker-organizer union drives.
But, Can They Get a Contract?
A second criticism that one hears is some variation of “Winning elections is one thing [as if this happened often at these kinds of firms] but let’s see them get a contract,” as if this might not have occurred to the SBWU organizers. A significant percentage of unions struggle to gain a first contract because of ongoing, and often unlawful, employer opposition. But organizers always knew it would take an almighty struggle to force Starbucks to bargain in “true good faith”; one of the campaign’s prominent worker-organizers told me back in December 2021 that Littler Mendelson lawyers would treat bargaining like a captive audience meeting, and in the handful of stores that meetings have taken place—mostly in Buffalo—that has proved largely correct.
But the morale and activism of worker-organizers—as witnessed by the huge number of strikes against anti-union retaliation—have not waivered. Most of the 100 plus workers who have been unlawfully fired have remained strongly committed to the campaign. Stores have faced even more intense anti-union activities after winning their elections, as Starbucks tries to run down the clock and prepare the ground for future decertification campaigns, which cannot take place until a year after the union’s election victory. Starbucks has an enormous incentive never to agree to a good contract that would encourage even more workers to join the wave of organizing, and unionized workers in Buffalo and elsewhere would never agree to a contract that did not include some version of the fair election principles. There is little point to winning a contract covering a small number of employees while abandoning most workers to Starbucks’ unlawful union-busting.
Moreover, SBWU has established several geographic areas of real union strength: Buffalo-Rochester-Albany; Richmond, Virginia; Greater Boston; Pittsburgh; Seattle; Portland-Eugene; Ann Arbor-Lansing; and several others. It will not be easy for Starbucks to undermine support for SBWU in these cities and regions anytime soon.
. . . [I]t will require an effort from the Biden administration . . . and likely also Starbucks’ customers . . . , and much of the labor establishment to force Starbucks to give up on its unlawful union-busting.
Ultimately, it will require an effort from the Biden administration—not just the NLRB General Counsel—and likely also Starbucks’ customers (whom polls have shown support the union campaign) and much of the labor establishment to force Starbucks to give up on its unlawful union-busting. Starbucks has announced Howard Shultz is stepping down as CEO for the third time (to be replaced by former Pepsico Chief Commercial Officer Laxman Narasimhan in 2023), but Shultz never really goes away, and pressuring him through a consumer boycott and high-level political influence may still offer the best hope of getting Starbucks to respect the choice of its workers.
“They Are All Leaders”
One of the best-known public faces of the Starbucks campaign, Jaz Brisack, a former Rhodes scholar turned union radical, is intensely proud of the grassroots leaders who emerged from the organizing at the Buffalo stores and said to me that mentoring rank-and-file worker-organizers around the country might be the campaign’s greatest accomplishment: “They are all leaders,” she said. Most of these grassroots leaders had no previous experience with unions, but many will likely stay with the labor movement for decades. Jaz’s unrelenting focus on worker-organizers and self-organization shows the value of having a relationship with an existing union, Workers United, for organizers like her who can provide workers with sound advice and strategic decision-making while running an innovative, decentralized campaign, which provides workers the autonomy they need. It shows that unions can adapt to the needs of a specific set of workers.
Which Way Forward: Self-Organization or Greater State Intervention?
SBWU did not invent this model of self-organization; it has a long history from the Wobblies (Jaz considers herself a Wobbly at heart) to the work of activist-lawyer Staughton Lynd. But SBWU has arguably put this model into practice more successfully than anyone else.
The Starbucks model of union revitalization stands in contrast with the drift, in other parts of the labor movement, toward greater state action and support for European-style sectoral bargaining. The SBWU model is consistent with the structure of our existing labor relations system—not the one we want, but the one we are stuck with—because our labor law already provides a framework guiding how self-organizing takes place. In contrast, it is difficult to imagine, in the U.S. context, that labor advocates will ever succeed in getting the state to simply hand over certain functions to weak unions and thereby make them strong.
Starbucks Can “Win by Losing” at the NLRB
It is impossible to discuss the union campaigns at both Starbucks and Amazon without talking about unlawful union-busting. Both campaigns have shown how vulnerable labor law enforcement is to abuse by anti-union corporations with deep pockets. Starbucks and Amazon have exploited the quasi-judicial proceedings of the board, effectively putting them on a schedule that is inconsistent with protecting pro-union workers organizing at hundreds of units, in which momentum is a key factor. For example, Starbucks disrupted the SBWU campaign by announcing in May that it would deny wage and benefit increases to workers in stores with union activity. The NLRB regional director in Seattle ruled in August that this tactic was unlawfully designed to dissuade workers from supporting unionization; Starbucks stated it would contest the decision before an administrative law judge (ALJ), and in September announced another round of benefit improvements, again only for stores without union activity. Of course, Starbucks’ new-found generosity would not have happened without the SBWU campaign. But this tactic has drastically reduced the number of new stores petitioning for NLRB elections to a trickle. Pro-union workers needed fast action, but the case will take months, if not years, to go through the ALJ, full NLRB review, and then to the federal courts.
Starbucks has also accused NLRB personnel of corruption and bias in Kansas and elsewhere and called for a halt in elections, thus challenging the legitimacy of the process itself. The NLRB currently has more than three hundred open Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) charges against Starbucks—a staggering number—and the company is engaging the NLRB in a bizarre “whack a mole” process: it knows that the NLRB is woefully underfunded and understaffed, so the more ULPs it commits around the country, the less capable the board is to hold it accountable for any of its misdeeds.
Starbucks is not on the ballot when workers vote—they are voting between union representation and no union—so why should the board treat them as equal partners and thus make it so easy for them to gum up the process? With these tactics, Starbucks can effectively “win by losing” before the NLRB.
Where Is the National Labor Leadership?
From the start, it was clear that taking on corporations as powerful and as anti-union as Amazon and Starbucks would take a monumental effort from the entire labor movement.
Both SBWU and ALU have enjoyed support from other unions at the local level. The support the ALU received from local unions in Staten Island has been well documented; SBWU has also enjoyed support from, among others, the CWA and American Postal Workers Union in Richmond, Virginia; RWDSU in Birmingham, Alabama; and UFCW, SEIU, Teamsters, and International Longshore and Warehouse Union locals, who joined SBWU to protest unlawful union-busting outside Starbucks headquarters on “investor day” in September 2022. However, at the national level, the union movement has mostly been missing in action.
The SBWU model is consistent with the structure of our existing labor relations system—not the one we want, but the one we are stuck with . . .
But it is difficult not to look at the dynamism of SBWU and the ALU and ask, “Why can’t the rest of the union movement look more like this?” Historically, dynamism has rarely come from the top of the AFL-CIO, and the president’s job has usually been viewed as one of catering to the “bread-and-butter” needs of its constituent unions, not one of providing transformational national leadership. The one union leader who appears to inspire the insurgent wing of the labor movement, Sara Nelson, has done it by creating her own national platform, even as she leads a small union. The new national president of the Teamsters, Sean O’Brien, has reinvigorated his own union and voiced support for these insurgent campaigns. And the RWDSU in many ways started the ball rolling with its courageous campaign against Amazon in Bessemer, Alabama, and it was the first to organize at REI in New York City.
So far, these are isolated examples. Why do once dynamic unions—such as the United Auto Workers (UAW)—lose their dynamism over time? And how can one replicate the innovation, energy, and dynamism at Starbucks and Amazon when faced with the problem of the structure of “union careers,” which largely only encourages officials to hold on to what they have, taking no risks, even during the most promising organizing moment in decades?
The Future Is Unwritten
We do not yet know what the legacy of this organizing “moment” will be. The safe bet is always that nothing much will come of it: unlawful corporate behemoths will crush pro-union workers; the NLRB will be too slow and ineffective before conservative judges; union stories will drop out of national headlines and many currently engaged with labor issues will lose interest; the labor establishment will sit it out on the sidelines; and we will end up back where we started.
But even if all were to prove correct, there is something historic happening here, showing us that the future of the U.S. labor movement is unwritten. SBWU shows that, to replicate organizing success in election after election, workers need a model, resources, good advice, and strategic decision-making. The SBWU campaign has shown remarkable discipline and worker-organizers have almost always been “on the same page.” They provide the dynamism, but they also know their roles in the larger campaign. But it is probably not the best model to win victory after victory at powerful, anti-union corporations: SBWU has shown the benefits of having the right kind of relationship with an established union, Workers United Upstate New York and its head, Gary Bonadonna Jr., who was prepared to take a risk supporting the campaign, but also allow it the elbow room it needed to maintain its grassroots dynamism. Workers United at the national level has subsequently supported SBWU through a million-dollar strike fund and providing staff resources. The rest of the labor movement would do well to follow this example.
The outcome of the SBWU and ALU campaigns is about something larger than just the U.S. labor movement. In a very real sense, these are struggles over the meaning of the future of work. If they can continue to spread and inspire, Howard Schultz’s and Jeff Bezos’ vision of a labor system based on low wages, expendable workers, algorithmic management, and no independent voice at work may not be the wave of the future after all.
The author would like to thank Jaz Brisack, Richard Bensigner, Casey Moore, Ian Hayes, Maggie Carter, Mari Orrego, and other SBWU organizers for conversations on this topic.
1. In most of these cases, the union won or lost by a small margin, but the outcome will be determined by the votes of workers whose eligibility to vote has been challenged by either the union or (more often) the management.
2. They had previously helped workers organize at Gimme! Coffee in Ithaca, at Spot Coffee in Buffalo and Rochester, and, remotely, at Pavement Coffee in the Greater Boston region.
3. See poll at https://perfectunion.us/poll-most-starbucks-customers-want-starbucks-workers-to-unionize. A national boycott may be the tactic that gets Starbucks to bargain in “true good faith” and abandon its unlawful union-busting—but only if the labor movement as a whole supports this and is able to pull it off. This is not to suggest it would be easy.
4. Historically, the IWW has believed in a worker-driven model of organizing: Lynd was a hardscrabble union lawyer in Youngstown, Ohio who could likely have chosen an Ivy League teaching position but was committed to putting his views on rank-and-file self-organizing into practice.
John Logan is professor and director of Labor and Employment Studies at San Francisco State University. He was previously an assistant and associate professor in the School of Management at the London School of Economics and Political Science and director of research at the University of California, Berkeley Labor Center. He has published widely on labor-management relations and employer opposition to unionization in the United States and globally.