For Unions, the Ripple May Be as Powerful as the Wave

Labor Organizing Workers

            New Orleans      Honestly, the news of a second consecutive defeat by the Amazon Labor Union, in a two-to-one beatdown in Albany, New York, is depressing.  Their victory earlier this year had been inspiring when they came back from a false start and soundly won in a much, much larger unit in Staten Island.   As disheartening, is the fact that Amazon is playing total hardball with the ALU, and as an independent union, even with a lot of public and labor support, it is hard not to wonder if capacity issues aren’t as much a factor in their two recent losses as the company campaign.

The news from Starbucks is hardly better, even though the success of SEIU’s Worker United local in NLRB elections has been historic with at least 250 stores having voted for the union.  The pace of new elections continues, but it’s no longer headline news in many areas, and the company from top down seems to take the union effort personally and is fighting tooth and nail against a contract.  There have been strikes in some locations.  There are almost 300 NLRB complaints pending on company violations, as the fight settles into a longer slog.

Should workers and organizers be discouraged?  I’m no Pollyanna, but I would argue for a longer and more nuanced perspective on the current organizing climate.  My case would be that sometimes it is worth looking at the ripples, and not just the waves, and in this wave of often worker-led and independent efforts to build unions, the ripples may end up being as significant as the waves at Amazon and Starbucks.

In my own experience in the bitter struggles twenty-five years ago to organize hotel and hospitality workers under the multi-union effort, HOTROC, although we only won a couple of elections, it set the stage for winning more.  That might have been the wave, but the scale of those drives allowed us to leverage the City of New Orleans into a first-ever election where we were able to win representation of more than 1500 public workers.  A small concession perhaps given the size of the hospitality industry, but it underlines my argument:  big industry and company organizing can create subsidiary victories from weaker and more vulnerable targets.  There’s a big “if” of course, because organizers have to be flexible enough to move quickly, even while engaged with the primary campaign.

Was SEIU’s Fight for Fifteen a failure for example?  How could they justify the millions they spent making the case for that wage and targeting the fast-food industry?  Ok, the McDonalds campaign was rugged, but many cities and some states did embrace $15 per hour as a program, and in places like California and New York where SEIU has huge memberships, they could leverage that message and that campaign, including its expenditures, into bargaining that set a higher floor because of the $15 per hour for advances among their existing membership.  The giant New York-based local 32B-J, was able to convert that sister campaign into huge wage increases and worker-gains in New York-New Jersey airport organizing successes.  An economist with access to data I don’t have could calculate the wage advances among home health, janitorial, and lower-waged public employees and their increased dues payments and likely find that even as SEIU may have been hoisting a losing banner on the fast-food battlefield, the campaign may end up paying for itself from the ripples created by those waves.

Amazon might be the front page, but then workers at dollar stores start to organize, workers at a Home Depot in the Northeast file for an election, tech companies and nonprofits organize, workers at a Lowes’ store organize in New Orleans, and independent coffeehouse chains look at Starbucks and voluntarily recognize their workers when they unionize. Workers watch.  They listen.  Workers are on the grapevine.  They see what’s happening.  Best yet, they are talking to each other.  Social media and the internet have allowed workers to go around institutions and bureaucracies and connect with each other, share advice, and even build solidarity.

Will it be enough to turn the tide for workers and their unions?  Maybe yes, maybe no, but organizers need to be nimble, workers need support, and all of us in the slipstream of these huge organizing waves, need to swim fast while the current is going our way, because a lot can be won in the moment.