The union movement has much to celebrate this Labor Day: not just two historic organizing campaigns at Starbucks and Amazon but also the first ever unions at Trader Joe’s, REI, Apple retail stores, and Chipotle. Moreover, the latest Gallup poll shows an incredible 71 percent public approval rate for unions, the highest figure since 1965.
This is even more remarkable given the labor movement’s organizational weakness: unions represent just 10.3 percent of the workforce, and only 6.1 percent of the private-sector workforce. When unions last enjoyed over 70 percent public approval ratings, national union density was more than double what it is today. But considering what it would take to rebuild that level of union density, the situation seems almost hopeless.
There’s a growing disconnect between the energy and enthusiasm, especially among young workers, generated by the inspiring campaigns at Starbucks and Amazon and the long-term trends of declining union membership. Moreover, at the national level, the labor establishment appears (with a few notable exceptions) increasingly out of touch with, and irrelevant to, the unconventional organizing campaigns at places like Starbucks, Amazon, and Trader Joe’s. And while dynamism in the labor movement has rarely come from the national leadership of the AFL-CIO, and is unlikely to do so anytime soon, there’s a much broader problem of timidity and lethargy in established unions throughout the country right now.
How can the labor movement harness the dynamism of this wave of organizing and use it to rebuild union strength over the long term? Starbucks Workers United offers the most promising model for several reasons. Here are five of them:
The American public has a very direct relationship with Starbucks and Amazon — much more, say, than the public ever had with GM and Ford in the 1930s and 1940, the last period of significant union expansion. What that means is that union organizing at these companies generates fantastic traditional and social media coverage.
These campaigns have contributed to the resurgence of the “union beat” at major newspapers. We now have outstanding labor journalists at the biggest mainstream media outlets: Lauren Gurley at the Washington Post, Noam Scheiber at the New York Times, Josh Eidelson at Bloomberg, Steven Greenhouse contributing regularly at the Guardian, and others. The entire union movement stands to benefit from their coverage of union organizing campaigns — if only its leadership can figure out how to best make use of it.
Traditional and social media coverage is key to young workers hearing about these campaigns and being inspired by them. For example, several videos on TikTok — a platform mostly used by the Zoomer demographic leading the current organizing wave — that document management’s brutal anti-unionism at Starbucks have attracted millions of views. One showing workers walking out in solidarity after a union leader is fired in Buffalo, New York, has attracted over 27 million views; another showing workers reading a list of demands to a store manager in Anderson, South Carolina, where the workers had voted unanimously to unionize, has over 12 million views. Starbucks had absurdly accused those workers of kidnapping their store manager.
Campaigns such as Starbucks Workers United are critical to getting stronger labor rights. Unions have always tried to win labor law reform by forcing it through the Senate while no one is looking, so to speak. But they’ll never win it that way because the corporate lobby will always be strong enough to block it. The Obama-era Employee Free Choice Act didn’t stand a chance because it was a quiescent period for labor (no Starbucks Workers United or Amazon Labor Union back in 2009–10), which is why Obama didn’t lift a finger to push its passage.
The union establishment has given up on explaining to Americans why stronger protection for the right to unionize is important — they’ve never had the language or the imagination to do it. But media coverage of the Starbucks and Amazon campaigns has injected a vividness and concreteness into the fight over union representation and has put the issue of union busting on the front pages of the New York Times and Washington Post as well as given the public an education on how our labor laws don’t work.
The labor movement now has a language to explain the issues to the public and make a case for why they have a huge stake in the outcome of this fight. The question is whether labor is capable of taking advantage of that opening.
Starbucks Workers United has developed a replicable model — based on the dynamism of scores of self-assured worker organizers around the country, Zoom training and mentorship of store-level and regional activists, and the imaginative use of social media — that has enabled the campaign to spread from coast to coast and win unions at over 235 stores.
In the modern era, no other US union has ever been able to achieve this kind of organizing success at a multibillion-dollar corporation that is determined to do whatever it takes‚ including committing hundreds of labor law violations, to crush a union drive.
Starbucks Workers United offers the best model for how the established labor movement can interact with this new insurgent organizing wave among young workers. It shows that parts of the labor movement are organizationally flexible and capable of adapting to the needs of a particular group of workers.
Most national unions appear incapable of running an organizing campaign of this character. In the past few months, other unions have tried and failed to win elections at Starbucks. But Starbucks Workers United provides a model for how they could provide resources and encouragement while still giving the young organizers the elbow room they need to maintain their dynamism.
We don’t know what the legacy of this organizing moment will be. It might all go up in a puff of smoke. Or come next Labor Day, we might have many more campaigns inspired by Starbucks Workers United’s hundreds of victories throughout the country.