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At the beginning of 2021, I wrote an article about how to start a podcast. For 2022, I’d like to kick off the year by encouraging folks to unionize their workplaces.
But first, a big disclaimer: I have never started a union. I was part of the United Federation of Teachers from 2009–2010, but have never been part of a union in my career as a service worker. I am not a lawyer or qualified to give legal advice. What I do hope this article provides, however, is the feeling that starting a union is possible, and that there are tools out there to help you. This guide is for the person who has considered unionizing but thought, “Where do I even begin?”
In December, a company-owned Starbucks in Buffalo, New York, became the first branch of the global coffee chain to vote to unionize. Soon thereafter, branches in Boston; Mesa, Arizona; and Chicago followed suit. Coffee shops across the nation have been quietly forming unions over the last few years, but the Starbucks union has garnered national attention as folks wait to see what the leaders and owners of the chain do next.
The potential of a unionized workforce in such a public-facing industry is huge: Unions have typically been associated with manufacturing, transportation, and the public service sector. While workers within these industries might come face-to-face with customers or constituents sporadically, that’s not even close to the impact or exposure of seeing a barista for your morning coffee—and interacting with a unionized worker every single day.
In 1954, over a third of U.S. workers were part of a union. Right now, about 10% of workers in the United States are in unions. The U.S. lags far behind its European counterparts in terms of union membership, and even in countries where union membership isn’t high, workers still have far more rights—like collective bargaining, sick pay, and family leave protections.
U.S. workers gained the right to form unions in 1935 with the passage of the Wagner Act, which resulted in the formation of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). However, in 1947, Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act, which put restrictions on unions and gave employers more rights. In particular, it laid the groundwork for right-to-work laws, which means a union cannot compel all employees at a worksite to join the union, and that employers of that worksite can hire non-union workers.
Today, there are a lot of negative associations with unions floating around, many of which stem from anti-Communist and racist sentiments and campaigns in the 20th century, coupled with rising unemployment and conservative fiscal policies becoming more mainstream—John Oliver did an excellent explainer on the shady practices of anti-union firms on his show, “Last Week Tonight.” This article from Pacific Standard also breaks down the decline of unions in the United States succinctly, but to this day, we’re still saddled with negative ideas about unions: that they’re useless, that they require high union dues, and that the union might make decisions you don’t agree with.
However, the benefits of unionizing are astounding. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, non-union workers make 81 cents for every dollar a unionized worker makes. During the pandemic, non-union workers were more likely to lose their jobs than union workers. Union membership increases pay equity across both gender and race.
Even just being in a city with a high degree of union organizing can benefit workers. A study by the American Sociological Review found that non-union workers earned more in cities with more unionized workers compared to cities with lower rates of union membership.
Unions are good for workers, full stop: They’re good for building pay equity, and they protect workers from being unfairly fired. If you’re curious about what it means to start a union in your workplace, this is the time to start asking questions.
I’ve interviewed union organizers at places like Tartine Bakery, Gimme! Coffee, Mighty Good Coffee, Slow Bloom Coffee Cooperative, and Colectivo Coffee. If you’re curious about starting a union, these conversations give a good blueprint on how members began organizing. This guide from Vox also provides both an idealistic and realistic picture of the route to unionizing. And the AFL-CIO has a guide on how to start a union, and can put you in touch with community organizers that will assist in your fight. Some important things to know are:
You have a right to unionize. An employer cannot threaten or interfere at all with your effort. In fact, here’s a list of things employers cannot do while you discuss unionizing.
Talk to your co-workers. This point came up over and over as I talked to people about forming a union. Find out what your co-workers care about, what issues they’d like to see improved, and get folks involved. Unionizing can be a lot of work, so getting together a strong committee of people who will help form the union is critical—anti-union tactics will work to segment workers, so it’s important to connect with your colleagues and build a viable effort from the ground up.
If you are fearful that your employer may try to retaliate, document everything. Legally, an employer cannot fire you for unionizing, but employers can pull tricks like downsizing staff or pulling out some disciplinary nonsense—if you suspect you’ve been fired as a retaliatory action, report your employer to the NLRB. If your job has an employee handbook, if you signed an employee agreement, anything … make sure you have a copy.
Employers may seek out the resources of organizations with names like The Labor Relations Institute—these are highly paid anti-union organizations.
Even if you don’t have an industry-focused union in your city, reach out to local chapters for assistance. For example, the Colectivo Collective worked with International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) to form their union, because it was able to satisfy a lot of the needs that the Colectivo baristas were looking for. Do not be dissuaded by arguments that an electrical union—or a union made up of workers outside your industry—cannot help you. They can.
It’s good to know some of the words you might hear during organizing, and some of the tactics ownership may use to dissuade pro-union votes. This page from the Colectivo Union website gives a good rundown of common phrases that may come up.
Get in touch with the media. Media coverage in your local city or town is a good way to drum up support.
If you are reading this and you’re a patron or customer of a coffee shop or restaurant attempting to organize, show your support, and don’t be passive about it! Write “union strong” on your orders, send a letter to management, share a message on your social media, comment on posts. This support matters.
You are not alone. Please contact local union chapters, or coffee shops or restaurants that have organized, for support.
It’s possible to start a union, and there are people and resources available to help when you’re ready to take this on. The tide is shifting. Good luck.
I’ve written a lot about unions, including what the television show “Superstore” taught us about organizing, how language is used by union-busters, the influence of the Colectivo Union, and why we are still so afraid of unions.
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