Amazon, Starbucks, and beyond? Young workers fuel union drives.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Starbucks employees Adrianna Ross (right) and Robin Hyatt pose outside the store where they are union organizers, on May 17, 2022, in Watertown, Massachusetts. In the past 16 months, union organizing efforts have sprung up around the country, often fueled by young workers like them.
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A surge of union activity is investing new energy in the labor movement. Successful organizing campaigns at some of America’s best-known companies, such as Amazon, Apple, and Starbucks, combined with a surge of teacher strikes are bringing new focus to workers’ demands, especially those of warehouse workers, salesclerks, and others who don’t have the luxury of working remotely.

Much of the energy behind the surge is coming from workers in their 20s – the tail end of the millennial generation as well as Gen Z, who are just beginning to land their first jobs. Many exude an organizing zeal not seen in decades. 

Why We Wrote This

Coming of age during a pandemic that put a priority on collective well-being, a young generation of workers is rekindling labor movement passions. And scoring some successes.

Whether this period leads to a resurgence of unions in the United States is not yet clear. Corporations have crushed new unions in the past. And today’s labor targets show little sign that they’re backing down now. The pandemic has added its own cast to young workers’ demands for better pay, longer breaks, and a say in how these companies are run.

“What you're seeing is the emergence of a new generation of organizers,” says Toby Higbie, a UCLA labor historian. “It's hard to stop this stuff once it gets out to a lot of people.”

Sitting outside Starbucks as the lunch rush dwindles, employee Adrianna Ross points to the fenced-in dumpster in the parking lot where she made her most daring move as a newly minted union organizer. It was January. A month earlier, the staff at a Starbucks in Buffalo, New York, had successfully organized into a union. The corporation, eager to head off more organizing efforts, was sending executives to stores around the Boston area to hold after-hours listening sessions with employees. 

As the mandatory meeting at her Watertown, Massachusetts, store drew to a close, Ms. Ross whispered to her fellow workers to meet her outside by the dumpster. There in the cold, using their cellphones as flashlights, workers signed official cards calling for a union election. “I kept peeking around the corner to make sure they [the executives] didn’t see me,” she recalls.

Ms. Ross collected more than enough signatures and sent them to the National Labor Relations Board, which authorized the election and, two weeks ago, held the official count. During a break, fellow Starbucks worker and organizer Robin Hyatt ran to Ms. Ross’ nearby apartment to see the proceedings unfold on Zoom. Final tally: 10 votes for the union, one vote against, and two other “yes” votes contested by management. The assembled workers whooped for joy.

Why We Wrote This

Coming of age during a pandemic that put a priority on collective well-being, a young generation of workers is rekindling labor movement passions. And scoring some successes.

“There’s a lot of support, and nationally there’s a huge movement,” says Ms. Hyatt. “I am excited to see it.”

In the past 16 months, union organizing efforts have sprung up around the country like sparks on a dry prairie of worker discontent. The surge in union activity includes workers at some of America’s best-known companies, including Amazon, Starbucks, and Alphabet (parent of Google). Two weeks ago, a group of current and former Apple workers, calling themselves Apple Together, sent an open letter urging the company to drop its new policy requiring employees to work at the office three days a week. 

Much of the energy behind these moves is coming from the newest entrants to the labor force: workers in their late 20s at the tail end of the millennial generation, such as Ms. Ross and Ms. Hyatt, and their successors, Generation Z, born between 1997 and 2012, who are beginning to land their first jobs. Many exude an organizing zeal not seen in decades. 

“What you’re seeing is the emergence of a new generation of organizers,” says Toby Higbie, professor of history and labor studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. “It’s hard to stop this stuff once it gets out to a lot of people.”

Whether this period leads to a resurgence of unions in the United States is not yet known. In the 1970s, when young people, fresh from protesting for civil rights and against the Vietnam War, began to organize workplaces, their efforts were crushed, Mr. Higbie points out. Like that period of upheaval, the current surge in unionizing is a manifestation of a larger sociopolitical movement among Gen Z, influenced by everything from Black Lives Matter and left-tilting Sen. Bernie Sanders to the rise of social media and the current labor shortage. The pandemic has added its own fresh zing. 

“The ingredients are here for something quite dramatic happening,” says Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “But there’s the law and the managerial mindset, which is still adamantly hostile.”

Sarah Silbiger/Reuters
Amazon Labor Union President Christian Smalls testifies before the Senate Budget Committee during a hearing on Amazon's labor practices on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 5, 2022. Even though he had been fired, Mr. Smalls continued union organizing efforts at his former workplace from the outside. Last month those efforts resulted in it becoming the first Amazon workplace to vote for union representation.

Pandemic-affected workers lead the charge

When Christian Smalls won a transfer from an Amazon fulfillment center in Connecticut to a new facility, called JFK8, in the New York borough of Staten Island in 2018, he thought he would get a fresh start with the company. Instead, he continued to be passed over for a promotion and at one point considered leaving Amazon. Then came COVID-19 and controversial circumstances that he says led to his firing. (Amazon says it fired him for violating his terms of employment and putting other workers at risk.)

Mr. Smalls didn’t fade away. Instead, he continued organizing JFK8 from the outside, hosting gatherings, answering workers’ questions, and eventually forming the Amazon Labor Union. Almost exactly two years later, on April 1, the union won the right to represent the workers at the facility, the first time any union had won an organizing election at Amazon.

Much of the union enthusiasm is coming from workers who couldn’t work remotely at the height of the pandemic: teachers, warehouse employees at Amazon, baristas at Starbucks, and other retail workers, including an REI sporting-goods store in New York City. Next month, workers at an Apple store in Atlanta are scheduled to vote on unionization. The pandemic has also scrambled the values and priorities of Gen Z, marketers say. 

“Shaped by the de-prioritisation of individual liberty during the most trying periods of the Covid-19 pandemic ... Generation Z will bring rise to a culture that rewards collective action over self-interest,” predicted the London-based marketing intelligence service Contagious in 2020.

Other factors have also contributed to the union surge. “COVID was a thing,” says Mr. Smalls, head of the new Amazon union. But “there were many reasons that made this work.”

One of them is the internet and the rise of social media. Of course, these tools have been around for years. The difference for this youngest cohort is the speed and intensity with which its unfiltered news is processed and used.

“The internet has definitely made this process a lot easier,” says Ms. Ross, the Starbucks barista trainer and organizer here in Watertown. “You can take something corporate has said and disprove it within five minutes.”

“There’s an awareness of all of the events happening throughout the globe, throughout the country, that you just never got before unless you just sat in front of the TV for 12 hours a day,” says Julian (Mitch) Mitchell-Israel, an organizer with the Amazon union. “I don’t think it’s that we’re better at communication, because I think that that frankly gives us way too much credit, when it’s really just that we are plugged into this absolute monster of a machine that we don’t know how to understand or can control.”

Mr. Mitchell-Israel came to the labor movement through politics. Galvanized by the 2016 Sanders presidential candidacy just as he was becoming politically aware, he started organizing for various campaigns. Eventually, he became disenchanted with politics as an engine of change, reached out to Mr. Smalls after reading about his Amazon campaign, and later joined him as an organizer. After the milestone victory at Amazon JFK8, the union tried to organize a smaller unit nearby, called LDJ5. There, earlier this month, Amazon won the vote by a better than 3-to-2 margin.

“I wouldn’t say I feel at all disheartened,” says Mr. Mitchell-Israel. “If we had just had more time, we could have easily won.”

Jay Reeves/AP
Suspended Amazon employee Reyn McGuire (right) talks with an unidentified union organizer in Birmingham, Alabama, on March 10, 2022. Workers are voting for a second time on a labor push at the company's warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, after the National Labor Relations Board ordered a do-over election upon determining that Amazon unfairly influenced an initial vote in 2021.

A generation seeking inclusion

Racial inequity has also energized many young people to embrace unions. “Radically inclusive,” a McKinsey & Co. report concluded about Gen Z in 2018. Non-Latino white workers will be in the minority for this generation by 2026, according to census projections. 

“Digging into my Asian American heritage, I have come to understand that the United States really looks to Asia for a source of cheap labor,” says Mayuri Raja, a third-generation South Asian and software engineer in Google’s Austin, Texas, office. “So my racialization, the way people see me in the United States, has been shaped entirely by my status and my people’s status as a source of labor. It would be foolish of me, honestly, to not organize as a worker when my oppression is tied to my ability to produce labor. ... I watched my parents be unhappy in their jobs and keep their heads down.” 

Now she wants to help other South Asians “think about how they have internalized this.”

Six months after Ms. Raja joined Google, a small group of fellow workers announced in January 2021 it had formed a union. The union went public a month after a high-profile Black artificial-intelligence researcher said Google fired her for her criticism of bias in the workplace. “I saw that it went public on Twitter, and I immediately was, like, ‘Sign me up!’” Ms. Raja says.

This youthful organizing zeal is about to be sorely tested. The union’s loss at Amazon LDJ5 is a sign that companies will not easily give up their anti-union efforts. And large corporations have shown themselves ready and able to boost salaries and sweeten benefits to blunt the appeal of unions. 

Also, the new unionized units will have to bargain at the negotiating table and, if needed, convince new recruits to go on strike – skills that will require more structure and expertise than the young independent unions now have. If history is any guide, the help these groups have received from established unions will lead to more formal ties.

What workers want

These young workers’ demands are not much different from what previous generations of union workers have fought for. Fairness is important. At Starbucks, for example, the problem doesn’t seem to be starting pay as much as the lack of pay raises for hourly workers who stick with the company.  

“There are people who have been there for literally over a decade ... who are making like $2 more than the people who were hired two months ago,” says Caitlin Caughlan, a barista at Starbucks Reserve Roastery in Seattle, which voted to unionize last month.

Here at the Watertown store, Ms. Ross wants to push for a system where, if the staff has to cover for a worker who doesn’t show up, that worker’s pay is divided among the staff rather than pocketed by the company.

At Amazon’s JFK8, one of the more disliked practices is called “time off task,” organizers say. The system automatically detects when workers are no longer at their station and tallies how long they are gone. If the break lasts more than 10 minutes, a manager might come around asking the employee what took so long.

“I even wouldn’t use the bathroom too much, because I really hated how the managers would walk up to us,” says Micheal Aguilar, who worked at the JFK8 fulfillment center.

Nearly a year ago, Amazon changed the system so time off task wouldn’t necessarily trigger for any one incident but would accumulate over a longer time, after which a worker might be talked to or fired. 

Or coached. Amazon says the process is designed to help workers. “Like most companies, we have performance expectations for all our employees,” the company said in a statement to the Monitor. “When setting those expectations, we take into account things like time in role, experience and their safety and well-being. We support people who are not performing to the levels expected with dedicated coaching to help them improve. ... Our employees, in addition to their regularly scheduled breaks, are able to take informal breaks to stretch, get water, or talk to a manager.”

This battle over who has a say in how the workplace is structured may prove the biggest chasm between workers and management. Many of these companies have become extraordinarily successful doing things their way. Now, some of their newest workers say that’s not good enough.

“My mother, she had no rights and no protection,” says Mr. Aguilar, whose mother came to the U.S. from Mexico. “What we’re fighting for is our own rights, so companies will not be able to treat us as they did them.”

“The company just makes this decision and we have to live with it,” says Ms. Hyatt at the Watertown store. “And that’s the whole reason for union organizing.”

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