For decades, US-based corporate giants such as Amazon, Starbucks, and Apple perfected an anti-union strategy that they believed to be foolproof. While the media made much of these companies’ offerings of above-market wages, college tuition benefits, health insurance, and liberal mission statements, workers were well aware of the iron fist beneath the velvet glove. Workers who did try to organize, such as tech workers at an Amazon fulfillment center in Virginia in 2016, watched their campaigns slip away amid a barrage of threats, interrogation, surveillance, and retaliation.
Today the landscape looks very different. Both Amazon and Starbucks face union challenges on the very scale their anti-union programs were designed to prevent. Desperate to fend off union victories, both firms have become reckless — so much so that their actions may unintentionally tilt labor law in workers’ favor.
The Fight at Amazon
Amazon did not face a serious union challenge until the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) campaign in Bessemer, Alabama, in April 2021. The company was willing to do anything to keep RWDSU from prevailing, including spending $4.5 million and committing hundreds of unfair labor practices.
In the months between the petition and the election, Amazon more than doubled the number of workers in the bargaining unit in a bid to dilute the level of union support. It held daily captive-audience meetings that lasted as long as thirty minutes, which saw the company threaten to cut wages and benefits and shut down the warehouse if the union won. Constant streams of anti-union messages were flashed across screens on walls, sent to workers’ phones, and repeated by supervisors in one-on-one meetings with workers.
Amazon even sped up a traffic light outside the plant to prevent the union from speaking to workers and pressured the post office to put a mailbox on company property, giving the impression the company had access to the ballots. In a particularly provocative move, Amazon hired police as private security to keep union supporters and organizers out of the warehouse. RWDSU lost the election, 1,798 to 738.
Confident in the success of its union-busting strategy, Amazon planned to use the same toolbox in the March 22 rerun election in Bessemer and in the election at the Staten Island fulfilment center. However, this time the unions were prepared. They knew Amazon’s strategy ahead of the campaign, while the company was unprepared for the unions’ campaigns.
Instead of once again trouncing RWDSU, the election in Bessemer was so close that it will be decided by a few hundred yet-to-be-counted challenge ballots. And on April 1, the independent Amazon Labor Union, led by Chris Smalls, the rank-and-file activist Amazon had fired just two years earlier, won a stunning upset at the company’s Staten Island JFK8 Fulfillment Center, with a vote count of 2,654 to 2,131. Meanwhile, Amazon, unwilling to accept the outcome, has filed twenty-five objections, claiming the union and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) rigged the election in the union’s favor.
On May 3, the results of the second Staten Island warehouse will be opened.
The Fight at Starbucks
For Starbucks, the contest began last August, when workers at three stores in Buffalo, New York, petitioned for union elections. Starbucks insisted that workers should not be allowed to organize on a store-by-store basis and that the election should instead include all twenty stores in the Buffalo area. The New York region of the NLRB ruled in the union’s favor, allowing the elections to move forward at the three Buffalo stores.
Two months later, in February, as Starbucks challenged every union petition with the argument for a geographic rather than a workplace unit, the Washington NLRB issued a precedent-setting ruling, agreeing that units of a single store are “presumptively appropriate.” Starbucks was undeterred. One hundred–plus petitions later, Starbucks continues filing and losing the same challenges for each election petition the union files, tying up the workers, union, and NLRB in hearings and delaying each election.
With its petition challenges failing, Starbucks has resorted to more extreme measures: firing seven workers in a store in Memphis, Tennessee; discharging three out of four organizing committee members in Phoenix, Arizona; and shutting down union stores in Buffalo. In April alone, worker organizers were terminated in Raleigh, North Carolina; Buffalo, New York; Overland Park, Kansas; and Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Threatened with an NLRB injunction and more than one hundred unfair labor practice charges, Starbucks filed its own unfair labor practice charges against union organizers in Phoenix and Denver for “blocking entrances and exits, making threats, yelling profanities, and surrounding a store and pounding on the windows to physically intimidate and bully partners inside in retaliation for not supporting Workers’ United organizing drive.” Yet despite Starbucks’ actions, workers have continued to organize.
As of April 26, Starbucks Workers United has won elections at twenty-eight Starbucks in four months and has petitions filed at more than 240 more stores in twenty-nine states.
At both Amazon and Starbucks, management has pushed back against election victories and the National Labor Relations Act itself, deeming both the union wins and the NLRB’s role in them as unfair, inappropriate, or illegal. These strategies are not new. They are in keeping with decades of employer tactics that frame unions as “outside” or “third-party” organizations.
As my own research has shown, it is standard practice, bordering on routine, for private-sector workers attempting to organize to face threats, interrogation, surveillance, harassment, and retaliation for union activity. In a study published in 2009, I found that employers discharged workers in 34 percent of elections, vowed to close the facility in 57 percent, and threatened workers with wage and benefit cuts in 47 percent. Even some of the more extreme tactics used by Amazon, such as bringing police onto the worksite, occurred in 26 percent of elections.
The historic union victories at Amazon and Starbucks have shattered any illusions that these types of corporations are invincible to union organizing campaigns. Amazon and Starbucks may still be wrestling with this reality, but workers are not. The scale of the victories has had a ripple effect not just among workers in these firms but across the retail sector and beyond.
Partially in response to Amazon’s tactics, the NLRB’s general council, Jennifer Abruzzo, has filed a memo asking the board to find captive-audience meetings illegal under federal labor law. Abruzzo’s action comes amid a leftward shift at the NLRB, which is more aggressively pro-worker than in decades. The NLRB has also instituted injunctions for companies that engage in threats and other intimidation tactics during union campaigns.
The mandatory meetings by Amazon and unfair labor practices by both Amazon and Starbucks have helped support Abruzzo’s arguments for barring captive-audience meetings and reinstating the Joy Silk doctrine, which requires companies that committed unfair labor practices to recognize unions if they have majority support. The result of Amazon and Starbucks’ hardball tactics, in other words, could be a stronger pro-worker labor law environment than in years.
Still, it is worth remembering that organizing is just the first step. These are just a few stores and warehouses in two of the nation’s largest and most powerful corporations. Either company could still shut down a store or facility or refuse to bargain with the union, and under current labor law, the most severe penalty would be a notice posting.
However, it now seems equally likely that the companies would face consumers and government regulators less tolerant of such obstructive and illegal behavior — and workers no longer afraid to take them on.