Since December, workers have led a surge of unionization unlike anything this country has seen since the Great Depression. It’s happening at arduous workplaces like one Amazon warehouse in New York, but it’s also hitting an entirely new sector: retail and big tech. First-ever unions have now formed at more than 200 Starbucks, an Apple store in Maryland, a Google Fiber contractor, REI, Trader Joe’s, Kickstarter, and a gaming division of Microsoft. Here’s why experts say it’s happening now, and why these progressive companies are fighting back against the movements.
Amazon has captured headlines for union drives at its warehouses, including a successful effort on New York's Staten Island. But activity is picking up elsewhere in retail and tech at big companies that are generally viewed as progressive, with no history of labor unions.
As of Wednesday, 209 Starbucks stores have officially voted to unionize according to the National Labor Relations Board. First-ever unions have also formed at an Apple store in Maryland, a Google Fiber contractor, REI, Trader Joe's, Kickstarter and Activision Blizzard.
"There's really no rational world in which the Amazon Labor Union or Starbucks Workers United should win," said John Logan, a labor and employment studies professor at San Francisco State University. "And yet they did, and in the case of Starbucks Workers United, they won over and over and over again."
The wave at Starbucks started in December with a store in Buffalo, New York, where workers voted 19 to eight to join the large, established Workers United union. In one example of the benefits a big union can bring, Workers United has created a $1 million fund to support Starbucks workers who lose wages as a result of organizing activities like striking.
The movement spread fast. Within six weeks, about 20 other stores filed for elections. Eight months later, about 45 elections have failed, and more than 200 of Starbucks' 9,000 U.S. stores have unionized.
"A lot of it is concentrated amongst young workers, sometimes college-educated young workers, often working in sort of low-paying service sector jobs: overworked, underpaid, overeducated workers," Logan said. He said their level of enthusiasm is causing a rush of panic elsewhere in the corporate world.
"The CEOs of all of these big companies are horrified by what happened at Starbucks and they're thinking this is what we want to avoid at all costs," Logan said.
CNBC talked to workers inside the unions forming at Starbucks and Apple about why the movements are gaining traction now.
"It has to do with the pandemic," said Laura Garza, a barista who helped organize her New York City-based Starbucks location, which voted to unionize in April. "It made a lot of workers that continued to work during the pandemic reevaluate what is most important to them. And honestly, it has to go to better pay, livable wage for everybody."
In addition to the pandemic conditions, numerous other factors have collided to create what labor experts call a perfect storm for organizing. The U.S. has seen four decades of stagnant wages. Companies that already had healthy profits before the pandemic made even more money after lockdowns. And there are lots of jobs available without enough applicants to fill them. What's more, the Biden administration is pro-union.
In May, Garza and organizers from Amazon and other companies were invited to the White House to discuss their efforts with Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh.
"They heard some of our stories of fierce anti-union busting, not only from Starbucks but from Amazon," Garza said of her visit to the White House. "Secretary Walsh said in particular that Starbucks should just come to the table with its partners and work together to collaborate."
Starbucks criticized the visit and requested its own White House meeting, which hasn't happened.
Watch this deep dive to learn more.
1:40 Why they organized
5:28 Why Apple and Starbucks fight back
10:24 What unionized workers want
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Why Starbucks, Apple And Google Are Unionizing Now For The First Time