Over the past few weeks, Starbucks workers in and around Buffalo, New York, have begun to unionize. As noted in this Vox story, and experienced bigtime in the 1930s, successful union organizing can be contagious. Consistent with this observation, Starbucks workers in Boston were inspired by the workers in Buffalo and have already started to organize.
So, here’s an idea for an end-of-year gift to working people in the United States: find the Starbucks closest to you, buy something, and encourage the baristas to follow in the footsteps of their Buffalo coworkers AND UNIONIZE.
Starbucks organizing is not the only evidence that we could be at the start of an upsurge of union organizing like in the 1930s. In 2020, the share of workers who are union members increased from 10.3% to 10.8%. This increase of 317,000 union members is the biggest increase since 1979 and only the second increase of more than one-tenth of one percentage point in that period. In addition, as a graph in the Vox story shows, two-thirds of Americans now approve of unions, the highest level since 1965!
More and more Americans understand at a gut level that unions are the only way we can fix our nation’s grotesque economic inequality. A surging union movement is also the most powerful tool we have to safeguard our democracy and make local, state, and federal public policy more responsive to working families instead of the richest one percent.
In the 1930s, unionizing big companies played a pivotal role in triggering mass organizing across whole industries. One classic example: the General Motors Flint sit-down strike spanning the end of 1936 and 1937. This led, in 1937, to GM’s recognition of the United Auto Workers union as the bargaining agent for all its factory workers.
Today, the structure of our economy is vastly different than in the 1930s, and fewer than one in 10 jobs is in manufacturing. But unionizing one big, nationwide company—Starbucks, Amazon, Walmart—could still trigger mass organizing.
One reason mass organizing could take off is precisely because so few jobs today are in manufacturing, but so many jobs are in non-manufacturing industries in which capital flight is not an option. When I’m at home, you can’t serve me my morning coffee anywhere but Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. You can’t deliver me a package except to our home in Mechanicsburg. I’m not going holiday or food shopping anywhere beyond five miles from my house. And, OK, I’ll drive nine miles to Carlisle, PA, for my booster shot—but I’m not going any further than that for health care.
Industry by industry (coffee bars, higher education, health care, janitorial work, security guard work, discount stores, car washes, supermarkets (a case of re-unionizing), food services…) and community by community (Buffalo, Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg), U.S. workers can bring union density back up to a third or more of the workforce. And because none of the employers in these industries can move away from their customers, workers and unions don’t have to win union status all at once. We can go one metro area at a time—just as union organizing in the construction trades has long done.
Of course, each new union victory in another city and in another industry could feed the surge in union organizing America needs to gain more economic and racial justice—because many tens of millions of U.S. workers want a New Deal in which they get more voice and respect on the job; better pay; and more opportunity to learn, advance, and deliver quality service that their customers appreciate. What has been missing is not the aspiration among workers for a better deal but confidence among them that they could come together to get another New Deal. Each new union victory—at Starbucks or elsewhere—that makes concrete that area-wide unions in each industry are the ticket to the next New Deal will fuel the organizing take-off that we need.
Keystone Research Center researchers have been writing about how the union movement can come back by organizing in local areas in location-specific industries for a quarter-century. Here’s a short version from 1998 and a longer, more scholarly version from 1993 (by former KRC research director Howard Wial). And for an updated take, check out chapter 13, “Hatching Labor’s Phoenix: Sparking Mass Union Organizing in the United States,” of the new Temple University Press book, The Many Futures of Work.
So, let me reiterate the pitch at the top: this holiday season, wherever you are, go visit the neighborhood Starbucks, and encourage them to join the company’s organizing wave. When I asked the servers near me in South Central PA if they know what’s happening in Buffalo and Boston, the quick response was “Yes.” That seems a positive sign.