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Why workers are teaching each other to form unions instead of relying on traditional organizing

A person holds "Vote Union Yes!" signs during a protest in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, Stop Asian Hate and the unionization of Amazon.com, Inc. fulfillment center workers at Kelly Ingram Park on March 27, 2021 in Birmingham, Alabama. (Patrick T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)
A person holds "Vote Union Yes!" signs during a protest in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, Stop Asian Hate and the unionization of Amazon.com, Inc. fulfillment center workers at Kelly Ingram Park on March 27, 2021 in Birmingham, Alabama. (Patrick T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)

Labor organizer and journalist Chris Brooks compares the conditions that caused the recent Amazon Labor Union victory on Staten Island to the Antarctic heat dome.

That’s because when the heat dome occurred, scientists said they couldn’t be sure whether it would ever happen again exactly the same way in the Antarctic. But climate change makes similar extreme weather events more likely.

“We’ve seen an explosion of inequality, soaring student loan debt, a pandemic and attacks on immigrants and people of color,” Brooks says. “I don’t know that those variables could come together in the way they did on Staten Island again, but what I do know is that capitalism is loading the dice, and they’re making these kinds of movement moments much more likely.”

Since last October, union organizing petitions are up by nearly 60% over the same time period last year, according to the National Labor Relations Board. And amid this uptick, Brooks, who is also the field director for the NewsGuild of New York, says it’s time to acknowledge and support the new ways workers at Starbucks, Amazon, Dollar General and others are unionizing.

Interview Highlights

On the success of the Starbucks barista organizing effort and what their work represents

“What we’re seeing at Starbucks is unprecedented in my lifetime. Already over 100 shops have organized. This is an explosion of organizing that we’ve not seen in any industry since the 1930s. And my argument is that looks a lot more like social protest movements than traditional labor organizing. If you think about the last 10 years, we’ve seen Occupy Wall Street take off all across the country. We saw the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign, the rise of the Democratic Socialists of America, the red state teachers strike, the #MeToo movement, the Movement for Black Lives. After the murder of George Floyd, you saw this explosion of racial justice protests across the country, which is probably the largest protest movement in our country’s history.

“And when you look at what’s happening at Starbucks, it seems to reflect a lot more of what’s happening in those worlds than what happens in this kind of slow, methodical, traditional union organizing channels. And so, I think that in order for that to be sustainable for the long term, unions need to get involved and be a part of building these structures in these workplaces. But they also need to be tuned in to what’s actually happening, which is that workers aren’t waiting around for a union organizer to knock on their door. They’re taking the initiative. They’re doing this all on their own and they’re learning from each other.”

On how this process differs from traditional union organizing

“It is really hard typically to win a union election. The last 50 years has seen the balance of power and society shift really to corporations and billionaires. Employers wield huge cudgels against employees. So typically, when you organize a campaign, you want to go into the workplace and identify and recruit the leaders that exist there. [You have] tons of organizing conversations, and you wouldn’t imagine going to a union election without 70 or 80% of the workforce in support of the union. As soon as the campaign goes above ground, employers are going to do what they always do. They’re gonna threaten to close the workplace. They’re going to fire some of the lead activists. They’re going to make promises. They surveil workers, they interfere, and they threaten them in every way they can to cajole [workers] into voting against the union. You want to start with 70% or 80% support and hold on for dear life leading up to the election in the hopes that you’ll maintain over 50% that you need to win a union election.

“But what we’re seeing right now is rather than doing all that, workers are just talking with each other, saying, ‘Hey, the baristas up the street, they just organized a union. Why can’t we do it too?’ And then they’re talking to the baristas up the street, learning how they filed the election petition, how they went to the board, how management did all of those tricks that they use, and then they’re organizing successfully. Rather than relying on the union organizer to come in and help them lead them through this process, they’re learning from each other. And then they’re doing it in a really quick time period. And they’re talking to each other in large groups all across the country.”

On how established organizers need to change their strategies to capitalize on this trend

“Workers United is doing a great job with the Starbucks workers. They’re going in there, instead of trying to dictate from the top down how to organize and the conditions of event, they’re really resourcing and supporting the workers themselves and allowing them to lead the way. I work for the News Guild, and I think we’ve done largely the same thing. There’s been an explosion of organizing in the last five years. In media, we’ve organized over 150 new units, over 7,500 journalists around the country. As much as unions can tune in to what’s happening, actually build meaningful relationships with the workers and then support them so that way, they’re the ones who are in the driver’s seat. And not only are we going to be more successful, but that’s the way that we’re going to take union organizing, from the slow, methodical path that we’ve been on for a long time into being a real movement.

On the balance of power between workers and employees

“In Memphis, Tennessee, Starbucks illegally fired seven baristas in the store there, and they still voted for a union. I’ve never seen a campaign where such a large number of the employees were fired for unionizing, and [the campaign] bounced back like that. [Editor’s note: Starbucks says the seven workers in Memphis were not fired for their unionization efforts but because the workers broke store safety protocol.]

“It’s a testament to the workers themselves, who are in these situations. They recognize they’re moving from crappy job to crappy job, [and think] ‘I might as well make my job better while I’m here.’ I do think that we’ve been in a one-sided class war for the last 50 years. I think the balance of power in society shifted dramatically in favor of corporations and billionaires.

“I don’t think that just winning a union in itself, or even a first contract is really what we’re trying to shoot for. At the end of the day, what we’re trying to do is to build power for working-class people. And so all of these retail workers and service workers across the country are demonstrating that they’re becoming conscious of the fact that they’ve been on the losing end of capitalism for a long time. And we might as well fight, we might as well try to do something to make our jobs better while we’re in them.”

Gabrielle Healy produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Peter O’Dowd. Healy also adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.