Do Today’s Unions Have a Fighting Chance Against Corporate America?

In 1996, Manuel Miranda, a second-generation Filipino American from Kent, Wash., graduated from Evergreen State College. He had majored in literature and got a job in Seattle, taking care of people with cerebral palsy for $9 an hour. The city was “post-grunge” but being transformed by tech, Miranda told me. There was a lot of excitement about Amazon, the online bookseller.

Miranda applied to work there and started out in the warehouse, packing books and CDs. He then went into customer service, where he responded to questions and complaints. Some people saw the call-center job as a way to fund arty outside ambitions, Miranda said; others wanted an inroad into tech. Miranda earned just a dollar more per hour than he had in caregiving but got stock options, health insurance and the pride of working for a cool, homegrown company.

Yet he recalled that “the mood was pretty demoralized. There was this emphasis on productivity, getting nudged or monitored for how many emails you’re answering per hour.” Everyone had to work 50 hours a week. A couple of his co-workers told him that they wanted to organize. They were in touch with the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers (WashTech), a community group affiliated with a large union, the Communications Workers of America.

Miranda joined them, surveying colleagues about their demands (more money, fewer quotas, job mobility) and figuring out how to confront management. In 2000, a majority of the customer-service department, which had stretched to some 400 employees, joined WashTech. But in 2001, just before the dot-com bubble burst, Amazon shut down the Seattle call center and relocated the work to sites in Tacoma, West Virginia and India.

Miranda left Amazon in 1999 but kept in touch with his former co-workers. He saw the closure of the call center as a business decision but also as union-busting, which Amazon denies. Nevertheless, “I didn’t feel like the union failed,” Miranda, who now works as a designer in New York, told me. When his co-workers lost their jobs, WashTech helped negotiate a better severance package. What’s more, “It wasn’t clear how to organize a tech worker at the time,” he said. “Now it’s something people talk about.”

I was reminded of Miranda’s campaign over the holidays, as I spoke with Amazon warehouse workers protesting the conditions of mandatory overtime during the worsening pandemic. In New York, New Jersey and Washington, D.C., members of Amazonians United, an informal union, signed petitions demanding a permanent $3 raise, access to cellphones on the job and protection from firing. Their bosses did not respond. Members at two warehouses near Chicago walked off their shifts when management failed to acknowledge similar petitions.

Only a tiny number of the nation’s packers and sorters took part, but I admired their nerve. All these years after Miranda and his colleagues’ efforts, the methods for organizing at Amazon are still in flux; there simply isn’t a single correct way to confront one of the largest, richest corporations in the world.

Amazon workers have had some success. In January, the company raised full-time rates by $2 per hour in the Chicago area and agreed to send a notice of the right to organize to all United States employees as part of a settlement with the National Labor Relations Board, which enforces labor laws in the private sector. In warehouses in New York and Maryland, Amazon posted its own fliers as well, warning workers not to talk to Amazonians United.

And in Staten Island, a rank-and-file group called the Amazon Labor Union collected enough union cards to be approved for an election at two warehouses. The N.L.R.B. also issued a complaint stating that Amazon retaliated against several workers there for participating in union organizing. (An Amazon spokeswoman said the company is “skeptical that there are a sufficient number of legitimate signatures” in Staten Island. She added, “We don’t think unions are the best answer for our employees.”)

Large unions are experimenting, too. This month, thousands of workers at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., will begin voting on whether to join the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters wants to help Amazon’s warehouse and transportation workers win a union contract.

There’s an urgency today that didn’t exist when Miranda assisted customers by phone: Amazon is now the avatar of a monopoly economy. That economy has made the world’s 10 wealthiest men twice as rich in the grisly months since March 2020. It’s an economy that makes me feel like the zillionth scampering fleck in some global ant farm. The days I don’t, it’s because of the workers I talk to and the small mutinies I see — at Amazon and in nursing homes, truck yards, schools, factories and grocery stores. “We’re definitely not gonna have a more favorable time to have a union,” Daniel Gross, a longtime organizer, recently told me. Which felt like his way of saying, The jig is up; we all know the score.

Workers have always organized in various ways, formal and informal. Since the beginning of the American labor movement, in the 19th century, there have been unions, as well as more ad hoc worker groups. Around the time of the Amazon call-center campaign, organizations like WashTech were much in vogue. They were called “worker centers” and tended to focus on communities (like Nepalese immigrants) or types of jobs (like restaurant-delivery workers) that traditional unions had failed to reach.

I got to know these groups in the mid-aughts, when, as a lawyer, I joined a legal-services agency representing worker centers in New York City. The centers’ offices were welcoming and low on red tape. They had limited resources and small memberships but, in the years that followed, attained goals well beyond their means: domestic workers’ bills of rights, new regulations for nail-salon techs and food-delivery cyclists, debt relief for taxi drivers.

I was impressed by their holistic approach: A construction day laborer wasn’t defined by his wages and hours — he also needed an affordable apartment and help applying for a green card. People at progressive unions thought this way, too, especially as the Great Recession and Occupy Wall Street highlighted the larger context for struggles in the workplace. And over the past decade, as a journalist and no longer a lawyer, I’ve seen the progressives’ influence grow.

In 2020, I thought that this increased enthusiasm for organizing, combined with mass death and financial hardship, might bring about a broad working-class movement. There were hints of ferment in the walkouts of essential workers and the record turnout at protests following the murder of George Floyd. After that, things quieted down — because, I think, of the temporary lift of an enlarged welfare state.

But then, between August and November of 2021, more than four million employees quit their jobs every month — individual actions that expressed a rebellious impulse. I noticed the same confident discontent in organized labor: Last fall, thousands of unionized workers went on strike or were on the verge of striking at John Deere, Kellogg’s, Kaiser Permanente hospitals and clinics and on the sets of Hollywood films. The wave of people leaving their jobs was named the Great Resignation; the agitation from within felt more like a great refusal, a commitment to reject the status quo and demand transformation.

I’ve watched a lot of new campaigns as well (including at The New York Times, where tech workers are fighting to join the union that represents other newspaper employees). For instance, since December, hundreds of Starbucks baristas — many of them young and influenced by Bernie Sanders-style democratic socialism — have announced their intention to join Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union. (It’s not the first attempt: The United Food and Commercial Workers and the Culinary Union already represent thousands of baristas in unionized grocery stores, hotels and airports, and the U.F.C.W. and the Industrial Workers of the World organized stand-alone stores in the past.)

So far, workers at two Starbucks locations in Buffalo have formed a union and will eventually bargain for a contract. At least 64 other stores in 20 states are trying to do the same, despite resistance from management. (A company spokesman told me: “We don’t oppose unions. We don’t believe they are necessary at Starbucks.”)

For all the energy around unionizing, it is a daunting time to organize, especially in the private sector. Unions have been weak for decades — and corporations have only become stronger. In 2000, 13.5 percent of the United States work force was unionized; now, only 10.3 percent is. Over the past 20 years, meanwhile, the average revenue of the world’s biggest publicly traded companies has tripled, according to a recent study in the Review of Finance.

Companies are willing and able to pay for union-busting consultants and lobbyists pushing favorable changes to laws and regulations. Since the apex of union membership in the 1950s, the bulk of economic policy has cut against the interests of the poor and working class: tax breaks for the rich; rules favoring large corporations; slashed wages; reduced social services; narrowed opportunities to sue employers for discrimination or fraud.

At the same time, the 1935 National Labor Relations Act — the government’s main tool to make sure workers can effectively organize — has been compromised by subsequent legislation and court decisions. Fewer categories of people can unionize or can do so as quickly or en masse across workplaces. Enforcement of the law has become weaker.

The question is, can store-by-store campaigns “match the scale of corporate power in today’s American capitalism?” a U.F.C.W. official, who wasn’t authorized by the union to speak on the record, told me. Every industry now seems to be dominated by monopolies and global chains. And the United States, unlike much of Asia and Europe, doesn’t have sector-wide bargaining where workers can organize across whole industries. “Walmart, Target, Starbucks — they have immense national and international resources,” the official said. “The National Labor Relations Board isn’t built to help organize workers by the thousands, in many locations, all at once.”

When I asked the labor sociologist Ruth Milkman when she last felt hopeful about the working class, she laughed. “I remember when Obama was elected and I made a fool of myself predicting a big labor resurgence,” she said. But that didn’t materialize: Many workers felt ignored during the Great Recession, and promised labor-law reforms never came to pass. “It’s a story of endless disappointments,” Milkman told me, “and it seems like that’s where we are now, too.”

Short of upending capitalism, shrinking the distance between chief executives and the rank and file would require two fundamental changes: a reduction of corporate power and an expansion of worker power.

The Biden administration could start by using antitrust and tax law to dismantle huge corporations. In a universe of smaller companies, workers would have more options and a better chance at organizing. Requiring better pay and benefits would give people the security they need to seek change; Mindy Isser, a friend who used to organize fast-food workers, said that their poverty wages made long-term campaigns nearly impossible. Fighting misclassification is also critical. Independent contractors like me are excluded from traditional unions.

Workers need to know, too, that they can report unsafe conditions or underpayment and can organize without fear of being fired. The N.L.R.B.’s new general counsel has proposed extending the right to organize to millions more workers and increasing the board’s power to stop union-busting. The Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act), the most significant omnibus labor bill since the New Deal, would go much further, speeding up the process of union elections, protecting strikers, penalizing bad employers and getting rid of state “right to work” laws that inhibit organizing. The bill passed the House but is marooned in the Senate.

All these changes would require a politics borne of a mass workers’ movement. But they are also prerequisites for expanding that movement. Hence, the temperament of the labor world: always hopeful, always disappointed. In January, a labor-studies professor published an opinion essay that compared the nascent Starbucks campaign (hundreds of workers at scattered sites) to the sit-down strikes of the 1930s that forced the Big Three automakers to the table (hundreds of thousands of workers in a few factories). Similarly, journalists on the Amazon-organizing beat have sometimes offered overly buoyant accounts of workers’ prospects. I empathize with this tendency toward grandiosity. Collective action is incredible to witness.

Over the past decade, I have not only covered the labor movement as a journalist but have also participated in it directly, in campaigns at several nonprofit groups and news outlets and now as a member of a nontraditional union of freelancers. The thing about organizing at work is that, because everyone who isn’t in management is in the union, you have to get over your differences — or at least set them on a high shelf. I have learned to organize with people who don’t especially like me and witnessed great tenderness among co-workers with vastly different views of race and gender and electoral politics. That’s why, I think, businesses fight even small unions from the jump. Imagine multiplying such unity, office to store to factory to hospital, in every city and state. What couldn’t we win?

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