As we watch the nationwide battle between corporate Starbucks and its employees, some people may be questioning the importance of unions and how America got to this point, again. Unions have been around for a long time to protect the rights of laborers and minimum-wage workers as they work to negotiate fair pay, safe working conditions and reasonable work hours. Often, when we picture unions, we think of coal mines and construction sites. This is mainly because unions used to exist for factory workers and blue-collar laborers. We imagine the horrors of grueling work that results in chronic illness and disfigured bodies.
In recent times, teachers’ unions, nurses’ unions, and grocery store unions have popped up to protect the rights of workers. Take the recent Starbucks strikes for example. Many of the employees who fall into the newer unions feel they are underpaid for their skills and unsupported by their corporate counterparts. Jessie Von Volkli, an employee of a Starbucks in Bellingham, has been actively working to bring union negotiations to the bargaining table for her store. “After I unionized, I just kind of hoped that there’s more of a partnership between me and like, the people who are managing me because I really wanted to work for this company.”
Von Volkli works for the Iowa and King St. Starbucks, which unionized back in June of 2022. Many of the employees are still trying to get Starbucks to come to the bargaining table. Per the initial letter posted on Twitter signed by 11 employees, the petitioners are asking for improved work conditions, specifically mentioning the lack of a manager on duty at times and low wages during the pandemic. During the June 24 unionization vote baristas mentioned pay, workers’ rights, and having a voice in decisions.
Starbucks Media Relations wrote in an emailed statement, “We fully respect our partners and their right to have their voices heard.” But it is unclear whether or not further attempts to compromise on negotiations have been successful.
Minimum-wage workers in America are fighting to have more support from middle management, many have felt left behind or unsupported in their day-to-day duties.
“I have had plenty of days that were unnecessarily hard and where I was treated unfairly by management and higher-ups for Starbucks,” said Gill Simpson, an employee at the Iowa and King St. Starbucks.
For many retail and customer service companies, middle management seems to be neglecting the minimum wage workers’ needs in order to satisfy corporate officers. Shannon Butler, a shift leader at a Starbucks in Bellingham feels that much of the responsibility of middle management has fallen to the baristas.
“We were left without a manager for several months,” Butler said, “and a lot of that work kind of fell onto the shift supervisors and then again on to the baristas to kind of basically run the store on our own for a while. After we finally got a manager, we just found things didn’t really get better.”
After speaking to many minimum wage employees, it is apparent that there is a strong desire for the regulation of corporate practices. However, the upper management does not feel the same. Allyson Brantley, author of the book “Brewing a Boycott: How a Grassroots Coalition Fought Coors and Remade American Consumer Activism”, and an associate professor of history at the University of Laverne in Southern California, said big corporations have tried to avoid unionization of their employees ever since the beginning of the period of union organization in the United States.
“I think that many in corporations see labor-management relations as a zero-sum game like either the corporation has power or the workers in the union have power and it can’t really be shared in any way,” Brantley said. “In an attempt to have control over their operations and maximize profit, which is what this is really about, they have always sought ways to diminish the power of unions or a unionization outright.”
Ultimately, the pushback against unionization is because companies are looking to maximize the profits of the business at the expense of their workers’ rights and safety.
Many companies see unions as a third-party threat to “their relationship with their work and their workers,” Brantley said, which means they will push back at attempts to unionize so they do not have to compete with outside regulations. This has been the case since the beginning of the unionization period around the 1700s.
According to Brantley, unions were originally created to negotiate shorter working days and to control strike regulations. Now, since the World War II period, unions have been fighting to secure benefits and better wages for minimum-wage employees. Since that time, the power that unions have held against large corporations has diminished as their practices have moved from more radical demonstrations to conservative efforts.
With the diminished power of unions, most corporations will choose to violate the union’s regulations and pay a small fine versus giving up company profit in the long term, Brantly explained.
“Corporations have developed a ton of different anti-union tactics, sometimes they just flout labor law like it’s easy for them to pay fines, so they just don’t act in accordance with state or National Labor law,” she said, “or they bring in anti-union consultants to tell workers you know all kinds of things about how they’d have it off without unions.”
Although many union-busting tactics are being publicly scrutinized, especially with a famous company like Starbucks coming under fire, companies still choose to ignore the regulations put forth by unions for minimum-wage employees.
Unions will continue to organize the rights and safety regulations for minimum-wage employees, but it’s up to large corporations to be held accountable for violating those rules. Many lower-class and blue-collar laborers, like the Iowa and King St. Starbucks baristas, will continue to fight for their rights as skilled workers in America.