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New York’s New Unionization Movement

Imran Ansari
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Monday, February 28, 2022

This article was written by City & State

When baristas at two Starbucks stores in Buffalo voted to unionize late last year, the move left a ripple in the labor movement far greater than organizing a couple dozen employees. The Elmwood store was the first to unionize in the company’s 51-year history, but it won’t be the last. At least 60 other stores of the coffee chain in 19 states have announced union campaigns.

The Starbucks unionization wave included two other stores in the Buffalo area that already had union votes underway by late last year – one voted to join the union, one voted against it. And earlier this month, employees at four stores in New York City and on Long Island – and severalothers upstate – filed petitions with the National Labor Relations Board to unionize with Workers United, the same affiliate of the Service Employees International Union that organized baristas in Buffalo.

That chain reaction effect is exactly the kind of trend that the labor movement had hoped to see since union membership is down nationwide and efforts to give unionizing workers more protections through updates to federal labor law have stalled.In New York, where union membership has always been higher than the national average – 22.2% of wage and salary workers in the state belong to unions, compared to 10.3% of workers nationwide – union membership saw only a slight uptick in 2021 from the previous year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Even that increase – from 22% in 2020 to 22.2% in 2021 – should be taken with a grain of salt, as changes in employment can sway the data, which is calculated by a sample survey. “You can't read too much into these small fluctuations,” said Ruth Milkman, chair of the labor studies department at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies. “That said, there has been some interesting new organizing. It’s very small in terms of the numbers of workers involved. But it’s something we haven’t seen for some time.”

Recent federal labor statistics pointed to significant growth in union membership in certain industries, including agriculture, publishing and food services. Retail, meanwhile, saw a slight increase in membership in 2021. Anecdotal echoes of those national trends can be found in New York, where newsroom employees, museum workers and nonprofits fought for a new wave of unionization, and farmworkers on Long Island just formed the first union of its kind in the state. And in addition to Starbucks, roughly 115 employees at an REI store in Manhattan filed to unionize.

In new and old industries, labor leaders are hopeful that New York is in the midst of a unionization movement – a handful of coffee shops, newspapers or museums at a time. “You have this employer, and it’s Starbucks, and you’re thinking, ‘I can't beat this big business corporation.’ But they're recognizing that they can, and it’s not as daunting as they thought,” said Mario Cilento, president of the New York State AFL-CIO. “One begets another, begets another.”

But while there may be some steps that local lawmakers can take to remove barriers to organizing, many roadblocks come from federal labor law that allows employers to interfere in union campaigns and offers little in the way of penalties for companies that violate worker protections. A bill to enhance protections for workers, called the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, also known as the PRO Act, passed the House of Representatives last year but faces an uphill battle in the Senate.

The challenges that workers face haven’t necessarily changed – companies are hitting back as hard as ever. But interest in taking on those challenges may be growing. A Gallup poll last fall found that 68% of Americans approved of labor unions – the highest percentage since 1965. “I think organizing into a union very often can come across as a very daunting task when you’ve never done it before,” said state Sen. Jessica Ramos, who chairs the Labor Committee. “But when you see people in other stores organize and win, it serves as tremendous inspiration for organizing in your own workplace.”

The baristas unite

Despite an aggressive opposition campaign waged by Starbucks, workers at the Elmwood store voted 19-8 to unionize last year, becoming the company’s first unionized location.Like other workplaces that have organized and formed or joined unions in the past few years, the COVID-19 pandemic added urgency to workers’ calls for better health and safety conditions, higher pay and more benefits. But early organizing efforts at Starbucks stores in the area predated the pandemic. Spot Coffee, another Buffalo coffee chain, voted to unionize with Workers United in 2019, making it one of just a few unionized cafés in the country at the time, The Wall Street Journal reported.After that, Workers United started receiving calls from baristas at Starbucks, according to Gary Bonadonna, the leader of Workers United in upstate New York.

And as in other industries that are seeing revived or new interest in unionizing, the Starbucks movement has been driven by younger people, Bonadonna said. “It’s majority millennials and Gen Z. I call them Gen U, or Generation Union,” Bonadonna told City & State. “They realize that rebuilding and reimagining unions is their hope for a positive economic future.”

Employees at a SoHo location of REI, an outdoor goods retailer, launched a unionization drive to be represented by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. Among other things, REI workers noted that the company’s progressive ethos didn’t align with what they called “unsafe working conditions” during the pandemic. REI came out quickly against the effort.

Retail and service workers have of course been unionized before – though not to the same extent as in manufacturing and construction industries, for example. But as in most other industries, union membership has cratered since the second half of the 20th century. In 1983, roughly 8.6% of workers in the retail industry were members of unions. In 2021, 4.4% of retail workers were union members. (Both figures pale in comparison to union membership in the manufacturing of durable goods, for example, which in 1983 stood at 29.2%, and today is just under 8%.)

Workers at the two Buffalo Starbucks stores that voted to unionize are far from finished with their fight. They are still in the process of negotiating a contract. In Elmwood, workers have only had their first bargaining session, Bonadonna said. And the stores that have just launched union campaigns will face the same challenges that baristas in Buffalo did, such as “captive audience” meetings, in which workers are brought into group or one-on-one meetings to hear arguments from management against unionizing.

Starbucks founder Howard Schultz even came to Buffalo to tout the benefits the company already offered without unions. “No partner (employee) has ever needed to have a representative seek to obtain things we all have as partners at Starbucks,” Schultz said in a blog post after his trip to Buffalo. “And I am saddened and concerned to hear anyone thinks that is needed now.”

The success of a couple dozen workers at a handful of coffee shops is not in itself a movement, some labor experts warned. “One thing that we know from history is that it doesn’t come in dribs and drabs, one Starbucks at a time. It comes in spurts, when it comes,” said Milkman, the CUNY professor. “When it’s significant, you’re not going to miss it. There’s like a massive shift. We’re definitely not seeing that now.” Still, Milkman said, what we’re seeing now is worth paying attention to. “You know, it has to start with something. Some people think that this is the beginning of something like that,” she said. “I’m skeptical, partly because the labor law is so screwed up and so stacked in favor of employers that it’s hard to see how this could really mushroom without that changing.”

A first for farmworkers

In an example of what changes to state law can do, the first group of farmworkers in New York unionized last year, following the passage of a law in 2019 that allowed the workers to collectively bargain. The Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act also guaranteed the largely immigrant and undocumented workforce the right to overtime pay and time off. Farmworkers were often excluded from the same rights other workers had under federal labor laws, and instead gained employment protections piecemeal at the state level.

Twelve workers at Pindar Vineyards in Suffolk County voted to joinLocal 338 in September. Health and safety conditions, including access to personal protective equipment, were a motivating factor for workers at Pindar as they began organizing during the pandemic.

A dozen workers is a very small number when considering that more than 55,000 people are employed at farms across the state, but labor leaders hope it’s just the beginning. Still, organizers recognized the challenges. “Of course, I’m going to say it’s going to be a movement,” said Noemi Barrera, an organizer with Local 338 who led the campaign at Pindar Vineyards. “Unfortunately, I can’t control what goes on in each individual farm. There’s going to be retaliation, they’re going to try and scare them off. But a lot of them have started to see that if what happened with Pindar happened, why not in their farms?”

In addition to the obstacles of potential employer intervention and union busting, there is a fear that workers’ immigration status could be used as a weapon against them. But, Barerra said that didn’t happen at Pindar. “It has been used in other farms that I’ve heard of in the coalition,” she said. “It’s been a tactic that a lot of other employers have used. Pindar has not. If anything, they have been cooperative. As cooperative as they could be.”

The Pindar union is still in the process of negotiating a contract, so it’s unclear what new protections and benefits workers will have. “They are very brave men who actually don’t know themselves how their world is about to improve once they’re able to come to a collective bargaining agreement with their employer,” said Ramos, who sponsored the Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act when it passed in 2019. “This has the potential of being a huge entry point for many Indigenous and Latinx workers to enter the middle class.”

“I think the biggest thing was respect,” Barrera said, of what workers expect to see change after unionization. “The fact that they (should) be considered as any other worker, to be able to take a day off or be able to get overtime over a certain number of hours.”

Local 338 is also the union organizing medical cannabis workers in New York – an industry that includes everyone from growers to retailers and will soon expand with the legalization of recreational marijuana. Local 338 has unionized eight out of the state’s 10 registered organizations that operate medical dispensaries. That amounts to about 500 workers, Saul Guerrero, a Local 338 organizer, estimated. Guerrero hopes to see the benefits the union has secured for existing cannabis workers – such as an $18 pay floor, paid holidays and time off, and health care – to serve as a model when it starts organizing more workersunder the passage of recreational pot.

A rising tide in newsrooms, museums and nonprofits

It’s not just new industries that are forming picket lines and union campaigns. The NewsGuild, which represents media, nonprofit and publishing workers across the country, was formed in the 1930s, during the nation’s post-Great Depression labor reform movement. But newspaper unions haven’t been immune from the same declines as other organized workers. In 1983, roughly 17.7% of workers in newspaper publishing and printing were members of unions, according to the Union Membership and Coverage Database, while 10.7% of workers in newspaper publishing were union members as of 2021.

Labor organizers are hopeful that that’s starting to change. For the past several years, online and print outlets have launched unionization campaigns, contributing to what observers called at first a “wave,” and now a “movement.” In 2021, the broader category of “publishing, except internet” saw a 144% jump in union membership over the previous year, with the NewsGuild adding roughly 6,300 members in the past four years. More than 5,000 of those have been workers in publishing and media. “I think a lot of it really comes down to job security in the industry,” Jon Schleuss, president of the NewsGuild, told City & State. “We’ve lost about half of all of these journalism jobs in just a decade. That means that the market is really tight, but there’s still a huge amount of journalists who actually want to work for these publications. So what they are doing is unionizing at a record rate to try to protect their jobs, to protect their work and protect their publications.”

Organizing in newsrooms is happening across the country, but between local and national outlets located in New York, the Empire State is where a lot of the action is happening. Schleuss said the local NewsGuild of New York has added about 1,800 members since 2019.That includes the Daily News, which has reunionized after its union representation crumbled in the ’90s. Some campaigns have gone more smoothly than others. Members of the New Yorker Union and two news unions under Condé Nast protested outside Anna Wintour’s Manhattan townhouse last year during a tense round of negotiations. The New York Times has been locked in a fight with unionized workers. About 1,300 employees at the Times are already unionized with the NewsGuild, while the New York Times Tech Guild, a group of over 650 software engineers and other workers, is in the process of a union election. The NewsGuild filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board last month, alleging that the Times is trying to influence the Tech Guild election by only offering three new paid holidays to employees who are not unionized. The Times denied the allegation and said at the time that it was working to extend the same benefits to its unionized employees.

Overworked and underpaid employees are unionizing in other industries that haven’t seen as much widespread organizing in recent years. That includes nonprofits, where workers – often young and highly educated – have said that it’s taken for granted that they will work long hours with little pay for the mission- and social justice-driven work.

And museums and other cultural institutions have been undergoing their own wave of unionization in the past few years. “The big museums, the famous museums, have had unions. They unionized a long time ago,” said Kate Bronfenbrenner, a senior lecturer at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. “But we hadn’t seen it recently, and now we see a trend of workers organizing.”

In 2018 when Dana Kopel, a former senior editor at the New Museum, spoke with co-workers about what she called a “culture of overwork and burnout,” a couple other museums in the area were already unionized with the United Auto Workers Local 2110. Then, Kopel and other New Museum workers got in touch with the unionized staff at the Museum of Modern Art. “We saw what their salaries were, and it was really jaw-dropping compared to ours,” Kopel said. “In some cases, salaries were almost double for comparable jobs. And we decided that unionizing was the way to make sustainable change.”

Kopel said pushback from the museum was prevalent from the beginning of organizing. Nonetheless, the staff voted to unionize in 2019, and months later secured a contract with higher pay structures, lower health care costs and more time off. Kopel was laid off from the museum during the COVID-19 pandemic. She and others believe that the museum’s layoffs targeted union supporters, but the museum denied that. Kopel’s experience helping organize her colleagues, however, had a lasting impact. She now works as an organizer with the Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 153, focusing on nonprofit unions.

In publishing, museums and a host of other industries with a new or revived interest in unionizing, people studying this field have picked up on another trend. “It’s mostly among young, highly educated workers,” said Milkman, the CUNY professor. “These are people who did everything right, they got a lot of education, they’re smart, they’re hardworking and they face this labor market where everything is uncertain.”

Milkman, like others, was careful to warn that the odds are still often stacked against workers. “So far, it’s very modest in size,” she said of new unionizing efforts. “But who knows what’s coming.”