Amazon and Starbucks workers push for unions after Covid upends job market

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Workers line up to vote for a union election at Amazon’s JFK8 fulfillment center in the Staten Island borough of New York, United States, March 25, 2022.

Brendan Mcdermid | Reuters

The Covid pandemic has caused Americans to reconsider how and where they work, resulting in a tight job market, rising wages and what has been dubbed the Great Resignation. It has also prompted workers, many of them younger, at big companies like Amazon and Starbucks to soften their newfound influence on labor movements.

Warehouse and store workers who want to join a union feel like they don’t belong at the table. They seek better pay and working conditions, and they want a say with management in day-to-day operations.

“Employees feel powerless and this solidarity gives them a certain power,” said Catherine Creighton, director of the branch of industrial and labor relations at Cornell University at Buffalo.

Emma Kate Harris, a 22-year-old retail specialist at the newly unionized REI Co-Op in Manhattan, has been with the company for three years and she wants to see more understanding from her bosses.

“Our managers and senior staff in the rest of the co-op don’t necessarily understand what it’s like to be in the field for eight and a half hours a day for 32 or 40 hours a week,” Harris said. Workers at the hobby and camping goods store have organized with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Stores Union, or RWDSU. (REI told CNBC in a statement that it was “committed to sitting down in good faith to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement.”)

Again, this is not the organized union push of your grandparents. Young workers like Harris who take part in union campaigns are motivated by a desire to improve the workplace, even though they may not stick around to see change happen as unionized workers in the pass. Some have little or no experience with unions before getting involved in campaigns, but recognize their power in today’s work environment.

“I think young people are breaking away from the expectations of previous generations that this is so. And I think my generation is starting to look more at how it could be and how it should be,” Harris said.

While it may seem like unions are on the rise again, however, the numbers tell a contradictory story about the state of organized labor in America. In 2021, the union membership rate for government and private sector employees fell to 10.3% from 10.8% in 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Private sector union membership fell slightly in 2021 to 6.1% from 6.2% the previous year.

But at the same time, US approval ratings for unions are near an all-time high. A September 2021 Gallup poll shows that 68% of Americans approve of unions – the highest reading since an approval rating of 71% in 1965. They are especially popular among younger members of the workforce. Adults aged 18 to 34 approve of unions at a rate of 77%.

Richard Bensinger, labor organizer at Starbucks Workers United and former organizing director of the AFL-CIO, told CNBC earlier this year that the movement was a “generational uprising.” The Starbucks labor campaign, which began in Buffalo and has now won eight victories in three states, has quickly spread to coffee shops across the country and is led by many workers in their early 20s, he said. declared.

Isaiah Thomas is a warehouse worker at Amazon’s Bessemer, Alabama facility. The 20-year-old said he joined the company in September 2020 to help pay his bills and for his college education at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. But he told CNBC he took a semester off to focus on the campaign, which is also looking to get organized with RWDSU.

“I believe that in order to bring about the change that I want to see, I have to be really involved in it,” he said. “And when I saw this opportunity present itself, and I knew it would have a very positive impact on my colleagues in my own life, I took the plunge and I’ve been going for it 100% ever since.”

The public portion of the Alabama vote count will take place later this week. “We look forward to making the voices of our employees heard. Our goal remains to work directly with our team to continue to make Amazon a great place to work.” Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel told CNBC in a statement. A second union ballot campaign is underway in Staten Island for Amazon.

How companies do it

Companies, especially publicly traded companies, must strike a delicate balance when their employees begin to unionize. Not all shareholders will think unionization is good for the bottom line, while others will think employees should be treated more fairly, according to Peter Cappelli, professor of management and director of the Wharton School’s Center for Human Resources.

“The math that a company has to make on this, in this context where you could be more aggressive and increase the likelihood of winning the election and damaging your brands, how do you feel about that, if all you think is, say, pleasing your shareholders?” said Capelli. “It’s not an easy needle to thread.”

Some companies go further and hire consultants like Joe Brock, president of Reliant Labor Consultants.

Brock was a former union president of a local branch of the Teamsters in Philadelphia. He said he has become disillusioned with what happens behind the scenes with unions, particularly when contracts are being negotiated. He said companies sometimes proactively call him to give presentations to employees to discourage them from joining a union. Other times they contact him after a campaign has started.

Brock resists the term “busting” and describes his work as something more nuanced.

“The union’s threat is valid, I think it causes many workplaces to review policies and make changes, I see it all the time,” Brock said. “I also see where they don’t address the issue, and they want me to come in and be the union breaker, and my company doesn’t. We don’t come in and lie to employees. We let’s tell them that it could work well for them, but it could also work very badly.

– CNBC’s Betsy Spring contributed to this article.

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