In a historic victory in December, Buffalo baristas voted to make their Starbucks the first of more than 9,000 company-operated Starbucks in the United States to unionize. Since then, 143 other Starbucks have unionized and workers at 120 other sites have called for union elections.
In another historic victory, an April 1 vote tally showed workers at an 8,300-employee Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, New York, voted to make their factory Amazon’s first unionized factory in the world. country. Since then, however, no other Amazon warehouse has even called for a union election (although workers at a 1,500-employee Amazon plant in Staten Island later voted to reject unionization).
So why has the Starbucks labor campaign taken off like a rocket while the Amazon campaign is only getting better?
Isaiah Thomas, a pro-union Amazon warehouse worker in Bessemer, Alabama, sees many reasons for the different pace – and said the biggest one is the different size of the workplace. “There might only be 28 employees in a Starbucks, but 6,000 in our Amazon warehouse. As for what the organizing committee has to do at Starbucks, it’s not a lot of people. They can keep a close friendship.They can coordinate things closely.
Thomas said it was much more difficult to maintain close coordination in a warehouse with 6,000 employees: “You have to have a campaign active all the time.” Bessemer workers voted in March on whether to join the retail, wholesale and department store union, and although vote counts showed the union was lagging behind, there is still enough of disputed ballots to count so that he can still win.
“Another thing that makes it harder at Amazon is that the turnover rate is ridiculous, 150%,” Thomas said. This rapid coming and going of employees makes it more difficult for the 30% of workers to sign the cards needed to request a union election, and once an election is scheduled, it is more difficult to explain to all workers why they should vote for.
Colin Cochran, a Starbucks barista in Buffalo, agrees workplace size plays a big role. “Starbucks stores are much smaller than Amazon warehouses,” he said. “When the Amazon Labor Union won in Staten Island, they organized more people at once than we have yet to organize. [at Starbucks]. It’s a completely different beast.
As a union activist, Cochran helps advise Starbucks baristas in the Carolinas who want to unionize. “We can talk to someone and a week and a half later they have enough signed cards and can release them,” Cochran said. “The small units allow a very fast pace. I couldn’t imagine trying to do something like this to organize an Amazon warehouse. It could take months.
Another helping factor at Starbucks is that it may take three to five baristas to form the core of an organizing committee, while it may take 25 to 50 to form a core in an Amazon warehouse. Cochran said right now there could be many nascent labor campaigns at Amazon warehouses across the country, as organizers quietly seek to get at least 30% of workers to sign pro- unions – that would be 1,800 workers out of 6,000 – warehouse employees.
Cochran said there was a little-known reason the Starbucks player was able to grow so quickly. At first, when the effort was confined to Buffalo, Starbucks brought in many managers and lawyers to work alongside the baristas and help stifle the campaign. But Buffalo’s initial victory soon inspired organizing petitions in dozens of other cities, and Starbucks management and its union-busting law firm, Littler Mendelson, simply couldn’t sustain such an intense union-busting effort. than in Buffalo.
“We basically broke their anti-union campaign,” Cochran said. “All of a sudden we had union campaigns in 100 stores.”
John Logan, professor of social studies at San Francisco State University, sees a great similarity: “Both companies are anti-union in their DNA.” He said it might be difficult to replicate the union’s success on Staten Island, given the large workforce at Amazon’s warehouse. In contrast, he said, “Workers United [the Starbucks’ workers’ union] developed this dynamic and autonomous model which could give rise to this mainly organized coffee chain.
So far, there have only been union elections at three Amazon warehouses: two in Staten Island and one in Bessemer. This small number allowed Amazon to make a full-fledged union busting press on everyone. “At Amazon, union busting propaganda is through the roof,” Thomas said. “You see it in the bathroom and the break room. There are mandatory anti-union meetings, and there are one-on-ones with management.
Charlotte Garden, a professor of labor law at the University of Seattle, isn’t ready to say that Amazon is more anti-union than Starbucks. “I certainly don’t think Workers United’s victories are attributable to Starbucks being soft on the idea of unionization,” she said.
“These elections at Starbucks are spreading like wildfire,” she said. “It will be difficult for Starbucks to put them back in the bottle.”
Logan said an important aspect of Starbucks culture unwittingly helped the union win — Starbucks’ emphasis on teamwork and building a sense of community. (There’s little emphasis in Amazon’s warehouses.) This esprit de corps among baristas often fosters strong solidarity once a union campaign begins. “Workers are acting almost as a unit to decide: this is what we’re going to do,” Logan said. “It helps explain why the union has won elections overwhelmingly, time and time again. Many are [almost] unanimity or 12-1, 15-1, 19-3.
Maggie Carter, a barista at a Starbucks in Knoxville, Tennessee, who became the first Starbucks in the South to unionize, said one factor making it easier to unionize at Starbucks was that it was easier to speak freely. “We have walkie-talkies,” she said. “We can talk about what we did last Saturday. Nothing prevents people from talking about the union.
Thomas agreed there was a big difference in how staff were able to talk with their colleagues, saying many Amazon workers were “compartmentalised”. “If you’re in lashing or picking or packing, you’re in your own cabin and it’s hard to talk to others,” he said. “If the managers see you talking, they say you have to stop talking.”
Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, said, “Amazon and Starbucks have the same anti-union animism, but the resources Amazon has expended have been truly extraordinary. And then there’s the constant surveillance of people. In Bessemer, there were 1,100 cameras on site. The tap never stops to spend money to fight unions.
Labor experts agree that it is generally more difficult to organize a factory or warehouse in the south than in the north because there is much less political and community support for unions and because fewer Many workers in the south have relatives or family friends who were union members who can explain firsthand the benefits of being in a union. Geography, however, seems less relevant in Starbucks’ southern campaigns, as Starbucks is seen as an unusual employer in the region. It’s known to welcome LGBTQ+ and progressive employees — a more left-of-center workforce that might more likely support a union.
“In the South, Starbucks presents itself as a progressive company,” Cochran said. “There is often a demographic difference between Starbucks and other workforces.”
Garden sees a similar big problem coming for the Starbucks and Amazon unions. “It’s going to be extremely hard to land a first contract” with these fiercely anti-union companies, she says. “It’s going to take a lot of community support and a lot of professional action.”
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