New Orleans Before union organizing becomes a marathon, it’s important to sprint as fast as you can until the companies catch up. Sadly, we’re seeing this unfold now in the nascent efforts to organize workers at Amazon and Starbucks. The old saying that the “bigger they come, the harder they fall” is an observation, not a guarantee, and both companies are resisting mightily and digging in for a long struggle.
The National Labor Relations Board is better today under the Biden administration than any time that I can remember over the last forty years. That doesn’t mean it’s good for unions, just that it’s better than it has been. Mainly, it’s better for workers and their concerted activity. None of that necessarily translates into an advantage for unions. The NLRB is still a bureaucracy, and it’s still a lawyer’s forum, more than an organizer’s favored venue. All of which means that it remains a system where company attorneys can throw sand in the gears and make timelines into an endless grind of maneuvers and appeals. Furthermore, the law has teeth, but the teeth aren’t sharp. Companies the size and scale of Amazon and Starbucks can make a hardball business decision to endure hundreds of NLRB complaints, all of which run the clock out as well with hearings, then decision delays by administrative law judges, then appeals to the Board in Washington, and then finally into the courts, leaving workers – and their unions – hanging in the meantime, even if they eventually win. Finally, with their deep pockets, even losing in this process on some fine, sunny day means paying off a worker in the case of an unfair firing, minus unemployment and other income, or sitting down with the union to bargain, ostensibly in good faith. It’s not pretty, but that’s the way it works.
On the union side, the sprint seems to have become a slog. The Amazon Labor Union is outmatched by the company, as an independent, rank-and-file worker led operation, even with support from other unions. Its two recent losses are warning signs of being extended past its capacity. The company is still appealing the election it won, so that also likely means no dues income. Other big unions and their federations are all saying the right things, but none of them, including the Teamsters, despite their loud talk earlier, have stepped up to face the company in realistic terms. Doctor, doctor, come quick, it doesn’t look good.
At Starbucks, SEIU’s Workers United, has compiled an impressive NLRB win rate of roughly 83%, winning about 250 of the 300 elections filed. The rate of new petitions though has fallen recently to ten per month, indicating that the early sprint has stalled. With the company continuing not to budge significantly in general, in bargaining, or in the face of strikes and workplace actions, and now with the economy making holding onto jobs more important, it’s hard to see a second wind coming that would propel an NLRB-based strategy past the 1000 organized store mark that might leverage the company.
For the union to survive, much less prevail, against Starbucks’ continued resistance, it calls for what organizers in the late 90s called a “geo-organizing” strategy similar to what we launched in South Louisiana in the early years of John Sweeney’s presidency, where we had organizing drives in hospitality in New Orleans, shipyards in the metro area, and maritime all of which were coupled with deep community efforts via ACORN and other forces in these areas. Reportedly, the union has some density in some markets like Boston, Buffalo, Albany, Eugene, and Ann Arbor. Such a strategy would suggest that the union try to mop up in those areas. For this to work sufficiently to pressure the company to concede some markets as unionized, there needs to be some focus on several key metropolitan areas where the union can achieve density, like New York City, Washington, DC., or Los Angeles. There’s union density in these areas and potential community support that could help sustain a longer-term organizing campaign.
Under any circumstances, the companies have taken our best shots and are still standing way too tall to ignore. To bring them down, something has to give, and it’s hard to believe that we can win now without changing our strategy and tactics.