The U.S. labor movement has seen a resurgence in union activity in recent years. In 2022, more than 16 million workers were represented by a union—an increase of 200,000 from 2021. Union election petitions with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) increased by 53% during fiscal year 2022, the highest single-year increase since fiscal year 2016. Further, unions saw their highest approval rating in more than 50 years.
Despite this resurgence, the current unionization rate (11.3%) is well under half what it was roughly 40 years ago. This is because of decades of attacks on the right to organize and, increasingly, employers’ use of “union avoidance” consultants, including in response to recent union organizing campaigns at Starbucks, Amazon, and Google. These campaigns—illustrated below—are representative of employer response and hostility toward workers attempting to organize.
In one of the most-watched organizing drives in recent years, Starbucks workers decided to organize to address low pay, long hours, and the need for better benefits. A wave of unionization began after workers voted to unionize with Starbucks Workers United at a Buffalo store location in December 2021. In response, Starbucks engaged in an anti-union campaign by employing the anti-union firm Littler Mendelson to assist in their campaigns and rehiring Howard Schultz as CEO, who has a long history of opposing unions.
Starbucks has employed both legal and illegal tactics in its effort to prevent workers from organizing. For example, Starbucks has required workers to attend mandatory captive audience meetings and even employed out of state “support managers” to allegedly monitor employees and discourage unionization. Wages and benefits have been used as a weapon to dissuade workers from unionizing: In May 2022, Starbucks announced a national wage increase and improved sick benefits package that did not apply to workers in over 50 stores that chose to unionize. Workers in Buffalo, Richmond, Knoxville, Eugene, and Mesa who support unionization have also claimed that Starbucks deliberately reduced their hours to levels that do not qualify for benefits. In December 2022, more than 100 Starbucks stores went on strike in response to the company’s closing of stores that have recently unionized.
Since December 2021, Starbucks Workers United has filed nearly 500 unfair labor practices with the NLRB, and the NLRB has issued 69 complaints in response to those charges. Starbucks Workers United claims that the company has fired more than 100 workers for union support. In February 2023, a federal judge issued a national injunction banning Starbucks from firing workers for engaging in collective action. Even before the Buffalo unionization drive, Starbucks engaged in this illegal tactic, as an NLRB administrative law judge found that Starbucks had unlawfully fired and disciplined two workers in Philadelphia in 2019 and 2020 who attempted to unionize. But since there are no meaningful financial penalties for these illegal tactics, there is little to dissuade large corporations, like Starbucks, from illegally firing workers for unionizing and breaking the law.
Despite all these obstacles, workers at 285 Starbucks locations in 37 states have voted to unionize. However, as of March 2023, Starbucks has refused to bargain in good faith with any of its unionized stores.
Another highly publicized union organizing drive was that of Amazon warehouse workers. With over 1.1 million employees, Amazon is the second-largest employer in the United States. Despite touting workplace health and safety as its “top priority,” Amazon’s warehouse workers have reported widespread workplace hazards. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has routinely cited Amazon for exposing workers to hazardous conditions at its warehouse facilities. Further, a recent study found that workplace injuries at Amazon facilities occur twice as often as the national average.
Workers also claim that Amazon demands such a high pace of work that there is little time for basic necessities such as bathroom breaks. The pandemic only exacerbated these conditions as Amazon workers were heavily relied on for delivery of essential goods. In response to these poor working conditions, Amazon workers sought to unionize to improve their workplaces, including at warehouses in Bessemer, Alabama and Staten Island, New York.
To undermine workers’ unionization efforts, Amazon spent at least $4.3 million on anti-union consultants and deployed both legal and illegal anti-union tactics. For example, during the Bessemer unionization campaign with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), workers in the facility alleged that Amazon monitored which and how employees voted in the union election. Moreover, Amazon installed a mailbox to collect mail-in ballots on the Bessemer warehouse property, spurring the impression that the company—not the NLRB—was administering the election. Amazon also held multiple captive audience meetings where they allegedly stated that they would cut wages and benefits if employees unionized. The RWDSU claimed that Amazon fired a pro-union employee and threatened to shut down the facility if they unionized.
These allegations were so significant that the NLRB ordered a redo election. In March 2022, the redo election was conducted, with the majority of workers voting against the union. However, more than 400 ballots have been challenged. As of March 2023, the redo election results remain disputed.
Amazon was also accused of anti-union activities during the organizing drive of its Staten Island warehouse. After workers filed charges against the company, the NLRB issued a complaint alleging that Amazon threatened workers with the loss of benefits and wage cuts during the Staten Island warehouse elections. In a separate NLRB complaint regarding those elections, Amazon security allegedly prevented workers from distributing pro-union materials and promised to address grievances if the unionization effort failed. Despite Amazon’s egregious anti-union tactics, workers in Staten Island achieved a historic union election win in April 2022, and more than 50 additional warehouses have expressed interest in unionizing.
Another high-profile organizing effort involved approximately 20,000 Google workers walking off the job in protest of the company’s handling of sexual harassment allegations. In response to worker unrest, Google hired IRI Consultants, a well-known union-avoidance firm. In December 2019, the Communications Workers of America (CWA) filed an unfair labor practice with the NLRB against Google for illegally firing four workers for union organizing. The NLRB later filed a complaint against Google, alleging that the company had been “interfering with, restraining, and coercing” employees’ protected concerted activity. In January 2022, an NLRB administrative law judge (ALJ) ruling revealed that Google had attempted to thwart workers’ unionization efforts under an initiative called “Project Vivian,” which one senior manager at Google proclaimed existed “to engage employees more positively and convince them that unions suck.” The ALJ ruling also ordered Google to hand over documents related to Project Vivian. In March 2022, Google settled a lawsuit with the workers, without the company having to turn over the documents related to Project Vivian.
Despite Google’s attempts to stop union organizing, more than 200 workers at Google formed the Alphabet Workers Union—an affiliate with the CWA—in January 2021. The Alphabet Workers Union is a minority union or solidarity union, meaning it is not officially recognized and cannot engage in collective bargaining. By choosing to organize as a minority union, the Alphabet Worker Unions consists of all workers employed by Google, including full-time employees, temporary employees, vendors, and contractors. Since the formation of the Alphabet Workers Union, the members have won back pay for Google contract workers, reinstated pandemic back pay for Datacenter workers, and secured additional stipends for Google BOLD interns. As of March 2023, the Alphabet Workers Union has more than 1,200 members.
Unfortunately, these examples illustrate the common playbook used by employers when faced with union organizing. Fortunately, policymakers have the opportunity to address these issues and reform current labor law. The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act would help ensure that workers have a meaningful right to organize and bargain collectively by streamlining the process when workers form a union, bolstering workers’ chances of success at negotiating a first agreement, and holding employers accountable when they violate the law. This type of legislative reform is needed to restore workers’ rights to join together and bargain for their fair share of the economy.
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