We Are in a Unique Moment of Labor Upsurge That Requires Rethinking the Old Organizing Rules

Amazon and Starbucks workers have upended the old common sense for how to organize unions. Union leaders need to retool their organizing tactics to fit a moment when workers are leading the way.

Amazon Labor Union president Chris Smalls speaks at the Labor Notes conference in Chicago, June 17, 2022. (Jeremy Hogan / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images)

“Workers are reaching out to our union in unprecedented numbers,” says Alan Hanson, organizing director for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400 in the Washington, DC, area.

And they’re coming to us in a way I’ve never seen. The checklist that staff organizers have — get a list, identify leaders, make sure the organizing committee is diverse and represents all departments and classifications — these workers are coming to us and they have already done all of that. I haven’t had four successful worker-generated organizing campaigns in my entire career, and we just had four in four months.

At one of those shops, Union Kitchen, a DC-based grocery store, workers went on a three-day strike before their union was even certified, a level of militancy that seemed all but extinct but has now begun reappearing in nascent organizing campaigns. After the strike and before the election, four Union Kitchen activists were fired, Hanson says — a scorched-earth union-busting tactic that is usually the death knell for a certification vote — but workers voted overwhelmingly for their union anyway.

“People getting fired during a union organizing campaign isn’t having the same impact it had in the past,” Hanson says. ​“Most of these workers are moving from one shitty job to another anyway, so they figure that they might as well organize to make them better while they are there.”

Union Kitchen workers are just one small part of a much larger organizing wave that is being spurred on by workers all across the country, including at Starbucks, Dollar General, Verizon retail stores, Trader Joe’s, and Apple retail stores. According to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), union elections were up 57 percent in the first half of 2022.

We’ve seen a similar level of energy for a few years in media organizing, where the NewsGuild-CWA, the union I work for, has organized 7,486 new workers at 160 workplaces since the beginning of 2018, according to the union’s president, Jon Schleuss.

The bosses have noticed the rising organizing wave as well. In a recent earnings call with Starbucks investors, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz noted, ​“There is a movement in the media and across multiple industries, including the service sector, whereby fellow citizens have begun turning to labor unions as a means of gaining voice, representation and improved working conditions.”

“This movement is not related to any specific company,” Schultz continued, but is rooted in ​“the frustration and anxieties that Gen Z Americans are facing, having come of age during turbulent moments in our history: the 2008 global financial crisis, the Great Recession, and now the global coronavirus pandemic. These young people have completely valid concerns given today’s uncertainty and economic instability. They look around and they see the burgeoning labor movement as a possible remedy to what they are feeling.”

Even yacht-owning billionaires like Schultz can see that something is stirring in workplaces everywhere, but how do we explain this new level of worker self-activity? Especially since many of these recent examples do more than defy the odds — they defy the tenets of the slow and steady, methodical approach that experienced union organizers, myself included, have relied upon and taught to others.

The Structure-Based Approach

The nearly overwhelming power of employers in the workplace and in society makes it very hard for workers to organize and win. To confront this power, union organizers rely on a no-shortcuts, structure-based approach that is incremental and methodical: organizers have endless conversations with workers, map the workplace, identify and recruit respected shop-floor leaders to a representative committee, get a supermajority of workers to sign union cards, and then go public and file for an election. Ideally, workers are actively encouraged to organize around widely and deeply felt issues in the workplace and to aggressively confront the boss as part of the campaign — acting like a union before officially having a union.

Under this model, you wouldn’t dream of taking a vote to unionize or call a strike if you hadn’t already assessed a supermajority of workers as being in support.

I was taught to approach new organizing drives cautiously and to assume that if the boss holds captive-audience meetings, threatens to close the workplace, and fires workers, the union should expect to lose at least 10 percent of its support. So unions typically file for an election with at least 70 to 80 percent of workers publicly in support of their union. Organizers fight hard to maintain the support they have under pressure from the boss but don’t expect it to grow.

No one I know in the labor movement would encourage workers to go to a union vote with only 30 percent support on union authorization cards or to organize a walkout without overwhelming support. So it’s a good thing the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) didn’t listen to me — or anybody else I know.

Sometimes Shortcuts Are the Right Route

In the early days of the pandemic, when the coronavirus was just starting to rock workplaces, Amazon worker Chris Smalls told media outlets that hundreds of Amazon employees were going to ​“walk out” of an Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island to protest the company’s dangerous COVID policies. Smalls timed the event to coincide with lunch breaks on a nice day, knowing that many of his coworkers would go outside to eat, stretch, and see what was going down with the announced action.

In the end, dozens of workers milled around the parking lot, but only a few were courageous enough to hold up signs or speak to the press. It didn’t matter. The action was widely featured in national media outlets, amplifying the issues that Amazon workers faced, and Smalls was illegally fired.

Undeterred by his firing, and building on the wave of publicity, Smalls and his coworkers kept going. They maintained a constant presence at the bus stop outside, talking to workers as they came in for their shift and got off work. Importantly, in December 2021, Amazon and the NLRB reached a settlement over the company’s unlawful union-busting practices, in a case resulting from complaints from New York and Chicago workers. The agreement required Amazon to publicly commit to follow the law and not obstruct workers acting on their right to organize their coworkers during nonwork times in nonwork areas of Amazon’s property.

Suddenly, ALU organizers could talk to their coworkers outside and inside the warehouse. ALU organizers now spent up to ten hours at a time in the break room on their days off, talking to coworkers and handing out lanyards, shirts, and ALU authorization cards.

In October 2021, ALU filed a petition for a union election, but the NLRB rejected it because ALU had not collected signatures from 30 percent of the 8,200-person workforce — the amount required to legally compel a vote. The union refiled in December, the NLRB accepted the petition, and the election was set for late March.

Shortly after the NLRB announced the date, Amazon had Smalls and two other ALU organizers, both employees, arrested as they tried to deliver food to workers in a drop-off area of the parking lot. One of the many seismic shifts that have taken place in the wake of the 2020 racial justice uprisings — likely the largest protest movement in US history — is the public’s anger elicited by police violence. Video of the arrest was shared widely among the predominantly young and largely black and brown workforce.

“[Amazon] lost the election right there,” Smalls told the Daily. “[Amazon workers] saw me giving away stuff, food, whatever, every single week, every single day. So for them to see me getting arrested for giving them food, the people that were undecided or on the fence about the union, they was like, full-on, ​‘We with y’all.’ That was the turning point.”

“Every time [Amazon] made a bad decision, we would find a way to use it,” ALU organizer Justine Medina told Current Affairs. ​“We were just always looking out for that and for how to strategically use that against them.” Following the arrests, Medina and others sprang into action. They printed thousands of flyers and handed them out the next morning. The arrests ​“got people taking flyers from me who had never wanted to take flyers from me — because a lot of people were kind of ignoring us.”

One of the people who stopped ignoring ALU after the arrests was Pasquale ​“Uncle Pat” Cioffi, a former dockworker and widely respected shop-floor leader who is credited, by Smalls and other ALU leaders, as turning the tide in the union’s favor. ​“In four weeks, I must have flipped four to five hundred ​noes to a ​yes,” Cioffi said at an ALU press conference.

Trigger Events and Whirlwinds

A little more than a month after the arrests, Amazon workers won their union by a five-hundred-vote margin. ALU clearly relied on tried-and-true organizing practices, like having face-to-face organizing conversations, identifying and recruiting shop-floor leaders, and courageously taking over captive-audience meetings to challenge the company’s hired union busters. But they also took shortcuts that defied the orthodoxy of union organizers like myself: they didn’t file for an election with a public showing of support from a supermajority of workers, and they weren’t systematically tracking support from coworkers.

At least part of the disconnect between theory and practice here is the failure to understand the potential of a different organizing approach, what some social scientists and movement organizers call ​“momentum organizing.”

“It’s a whole different method of organizing,” says Paul Engler, coauthor of This Is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping the Twenty-First Century.

In mass-protest organizing, how people are radicalized is based on trigger events and moments of the whirlwind. Trigger events are highly publicized moments that mobilize people outside of existing structures. That happens mostly through the media. If the trigger event is big enough, then there is an outpouring of decentralized energy that emerges. That is what we call the ​“moment of the whirlwind.”

Momentum organizing often relies on external events, Engler argues, but it isn’t random or determined by blind luck. Momentum organizers rely on moments that capture the attention of people on the sidelines and draw them into the fight. The time is ripe for mass protest or to build to a strike or a successful union vote because grassroots organizers have put in the work; there is a core group of activists ready to seize on the event as an opportunity for mass action. ALU organizers used such events — like the initial walkout, Smalls being fired, and the arrest of ALU organizers — as trigger events to further polarize their workplace, which resulted in even more active support.

The goal of momentum organizers is to foster a virtuous cycle of building to trigger events and then absorbing the subsequent explosion of energy through mass trainings and decentralized structures, while then building to another, future trigger event. Police violence can be a trigger event, such as in the case of the murder of George Floyd, but so can worker victories. It’s not difficult to see this virtuous cycle being unleashed at Starbucks, where dozens of stores have successfully won union elections and hundreds more are seeking to vote.

When the whirlwind comes, what was once seen as a risky long-shot action or fringe idea — going on strike, organizing a union, running for political office as a socialist, advocating for policies that divest from police and prisons and invest in communities — suddenly snowballs into a series of independent, self-organized actions.

Among structure-based organizers, ​“mobilizing” is often described, somewhat derisively, as turning out everyone who already agrees with us, while ​“organizing” is seen as the more difficult work of systematically convincing those who don’t yet agree with us. This approach underestimates the power of movement moments — the whirlwind — where, very suddenly, the number of people who actively agree with us skyrockets. In the structure-based approach, organizers often spend months having organizing conversations, building committees, and assessing workers in the lead-up to a union vote. They often spend even longer painstakingly building the confidence of workers through small workplace actions to build to a strike. But in a whirlwind moment, those kinds of actions can suddenly be jump-started by the workers themselves.

“In most conditions, momentum organizing is not the way to organize unions,” Engler says. ​“The elders in the structure-based tradition know what they are doing and their advice is solid under normal conditions, but they don’t have the skills or the way of thinking that can take advantage of moments when those conditions radically change.”

Engler is not surprised that Amazon was organized through the self-activity of workers outside the mainstream labor movement.

“It’s not structure-based mass organizations that can step into the void and absorb momentum quickly,” Engler says. ​“It’s the people coming out of nowhere. Often by people who don’t even know how to do it or by those who are rooted in the mass protest tradition. It’s the unusual suspects.”

Triggering events are radicalizing and can give birth to all-new organizational structures. In fact, this is how the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) itself was born.

Labor’s New Millions

After decades of bloody repression and a litany of lost strikes from the 1880s through the early 1930s, the CIO burst onto the scene and the labor movement grew, not with slow and steady progress through millions of systematically tracked one-on-one conversations, but by the whirlwind.

At their 1935 convention, when the leaders of the craft unions in the American Federation of Labor (AFL) voted against organizing the mass-production industries — the biggest and most powerful companies of their day — leaders of the industrial unions (including John L. Lewis, president of the United Mine Workers of America, then the nation’s largest union) broke away from the AFL. This group formed the CIO.

As Mary Heaton Vorse, one of the greatest labor journalists of the twentieth century, noted in Labor’s New Millions, her seminal firsthand reporting on the CIO drives of the 1930s, the newly formed organization’s struggles were successful because of new tactics (like the sit-down strike and consumer boycotts) and new federal laws (that emboldened workers), but also because CIO’s campaigns were capable of unleashing and absorbing widespread mass support for unions and their struggles.

“It cannot be said it was the CIO alone which organized the workers which stormed into its ranks,” wrote Vorse. ​“The young CIO did not have the means for such accomplishment. A great force like a force of nature had been pent up, partly by the open shop employers, partly by the inadequate form imposed by the AFL leadership. The CIO undammed a channel through which the ​‘desires and aspirations of millions of workers’ could flow.”

Nowhere is this interplay between ripening conditions and organizing skills made clearer than in the 1936–1937 sit-down strike against General Motors in Flint, Michigan, which the United Auto Workers (UAW) won not only because of the risks taken by the sit-down strikers and aid from the Women’s Auxiliary but because of political support from Michigan’s newly elected governor, Frank Murphy. Murphy defied injunctions and mobilized the National Guard to protect the striking workers rather than evict them.

In 1936, prior to Flint, the UAW had only 30,000 members and sixteen contracts, ten of which were in one local in Toledo, Ohio. After Flint, by the end of 1937, the union had more than 400,000 members and more than four thousand contracts with auto and parts companies.

Flint sparked a strike wave that rippled far beyond the auto industry. As Vorse noted, the UAW’s victory resulted in ​“an epidemic of sit-down strikes” that ​“turned Detroit upside down for weeks.” All over the Motor City, everyone from hotel workers to department store employees sat down on the job to win union recognition and a contract — and they often succeeded. According to labor historian Jeremy Brecher, nearly 400,000 workers from across the nation participated in sit-down strikes in 1937.

“Organizers changed their approach after the Flint sit-down strike,” Engler says. ​“They didn’t do house visits. They just dropped thousands of cards at the gates and the workers just organized themselves. This was a moment when workers were self-organizing in hot shops and the movement started behaving more like mass-protest organizing than structure-based organizing.”

Engler continues, ​“Right now, we are in an interesting historical moment and the question we are all asking is: Are we in a moment where the rules governing hot-shop organizing have once again radically changed?”

Seize the Whirlwind

Because employer power is so overwhelming and the consequences of losing a union organizing drive or a strike can be so devastating, there is enormous pressure within unions to play things safe and always follow the structure-based playbook. After the ALU lost its union vote at a second Staten Island Amazon warehouse on May 2, it’s likely that some observers will argue that the historic success of the first election was just a fluke — and take the loss of the second election as an affirmation that organizers should continue following the largely staff-driven, structure-based organizing gospel to the letter.

This dogma creates an institutional culture that is highly resistant to recognizing and seizing on the potential for momentum organizing. But some unions are rising to the occasion, putting resources into fanning the sparks of discontent inside workers and helping them spread the resulting organizing fire.

Surprisingly, one of those unions is Workers United, the relatively little (and little-known) Service Employees International Union affiliate behind the wave of Starbucks organizing. Their biggest and most important resource? The workers themselves.

“If Starbucks workers in the northeast region are thinking about unionizing, I’m often the first person they meet,” said Kylah Clay, a twenty-four-year-old barista in Boston and one of the organizers who spearheaded the successful unionization of the first Starbucks store in Massachusetts in April.

With so few union staff to assist the hundreds of Starbucks stores that are seeking to unionize, workers like Clay have stepped up to teach other workers how to prepare for management’s anti-union campaign, how to file for a union election, and even how to help prepare workers to give testimony at NLRB hearings. The first handful of union stores in various regions of the country — from Tennessee and Florida to Seattle, Boston, and Buffalo — have emerged to become leaders in their areas, providing guidance and trainings to the baristas in other stores.

And the more stores keep winning, the more stores keep reaching out.

In Massachusetts, twelve stores have unionized and more have filed for elections, according to Clay, who attests to having worked with these shops.

“I didn’t know what a union was before October 2021, so all of this has been on-the-spot learning,” Clay says. ​

We are not super experienced organizers or labor lawyers; we are just baristas who saw other baristas organizing and believed we could do it too. Now I’m being contacted by stores all across the country where baristas have already talked with each other about organizing and are eager to form a union. The biggest barrier for them is just preparing for the boss’s campaign and navigating the Labor Board. So we’ve taken it on ourselves to teach one another and we’ve streamlined the process to make it as easy as possible.

In the NewsGuild-CWA, the union has launched an intensive member-organizer program based on the principle of ​“Learn It, Do It, Teach It,” the goal is to demystify and democratize organizing so that NewsGuild-CWA members can lead new organizing and contract campaigns themselves. Through this program, the organizing wave in media has been able to scale up quickly as more and more members join.

“The 2008 economic collapse, the decline in the media industry, and the sense that journalists were under attack following the election of Trump has resulted in a shift in consciousness among media workers, and now they all want to organize and are increasingly willing to go out on strike,” says Stephanie Basile, NewsGuild’s national organizing coordinator. Basile, alongside other staff and union members, is a founding architect of the member-organizer program. The national training program develops the organizing know-how of rank-and-file members by having them work side by side with staff and veteran member-organizers. It utilizes Zoom to connect media workers with NewsGuild locals across the country so they can brainstorm with and learn from each other.

“Each organizing success has made the next campaign easier to the point that, when many media workers reach out to us, they just believe that unionizing is a foregone conclusion,” Basile says.

If the labor movement hopes to grow in leaps and bounds, like it did in the 1930s, then it will require this kind of commitment to rank-and-file unionism — workers teaching other workers and building democratic structures to support that initiative and development.

“The spirit of organizing is that anyone can learn to do it and everyone can get better at it over time through experience,” Basile says. ​“Workers just need opportunities to organize, to run trainings, to plan actions, to bargain their own contracts, to do all of those things that union staff do all the time and to come together to discuss how to keep doing it better. If unions build structures that reinforce those conversations and experiences for workers, that can snowball into a movement.”