The pandemic is fueling unionization efforts in Chicago and across the country

Starbucks union
Starbucks employees and supporters react as votes are read during a viewing of their union election on Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021, in Buffalo, N.Y. Starbucks workers there voted to unionize over the company’s objections, pointing the way to a new labor model for the 50-year old coffee giant and highlighting a growing movement for labor organizing in the U.S. Joshua Bessex / Associated Press
Starbucks union
Starbucks employees and supporters react as votes are read during a viewing of their union election on Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021, in Buffalo, N.Y. Starbucks workers there voted to unionize over the company’s objections, pointing the way to a new labor model for the 50-year old coffee giant and highlighting a growing movement for labor organizing in the U.S. Joshua Bessex / Associated Press

The pandemic is fueling unionization efforts in Chicago and across the country

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Earlier this month, an upstate New York Starbucks store became the coffee giant’s first unionized workplace in the U.S. Workers voted 19-8 in favor of a union despite Starbucks’ efforts to quash the move.

The Starbucks news is part of a growing movement for organized labor across the country, in the midst of a worker shortage and record numbers of employees quitting their jobs.

Researchers say workers have realized the benefits of unionization during the pandemic as unionized industries have suffered lower rates of job losses. As a result, despite the overall loss of jobs during the pandemic, the share of workers represented by unions has increased nationwide. In Illinois, the share of workers represented by unions increased from 14.7% in 2019 to 15.2% in 2020. That’s the highest one-year jump in the state since 2013. In addition, surveys also show that support for labor unions has increased among nonunion workers and the public, at large.

WBEZ’s Esther Yoon-Ji Kang spoke with Robert Bruno, professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He discusses whether the Chicago area will see more unionization efforts, how unions could have protected Amazon workers who were killed when a tornado hit a warehouse in downstate Edwardsville and whether the labor movement will continue to gather steam in 2022.

Below is a transcript of the conversation, edited for clarity and brevity.

WBEZ: Just days after workers at the Starbucks in Buffalo, New York, voted to unionize, employees in Boston filed for union election. Will the Chicago area see similar efforts?

Bruno: I would expect that they would, given the large union density in Chicago. It’s a city that understands union organizing, and I think there’s a real receptivity to … organizing. And given the density of stores here in the Chicago area, I’d be surprised if there wasn’t an organizing campaign eventually.

Have you heard of any such efforts around here?

You know, not with Starbucks. I believe Colectivo Coffee, which has its corporate offices … out of Milwaukee, does have stores in Chicago, and there have been organizing efforts there.

Unions seem to be gathering some steam at the moment. How much of this is related to the pandemic, as opposed to the natural ebb and flow of workers’ rights movements?

I think it’s a combination, right? Any organizing surge requires some changes in the material conditions — the series of events, what’s current in the labor market, in the marketplace. And clearly, the labor shortage caused by the pandemic gives a little bit more fuel to workers organizing. The terrible working conditions during the pandemic, it just exposed a lot of abuse, and so that’s a reason for workers to organize. So clearly, we’ve identified some immediate causes. But it’s also part of a larger, I think, evolution of union organizing, where it can take years — it can take decades — to organize particular industries, and the labor movement clearly understands that it has to organize where jobs are being created. So that’s going to be in the logistics industry, it’s going to be in a lot of retail. So I think it’s part of something immediate, but there is a change, a long-term sort of evolution that’s unfolding.

A tornado ripped through an Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville, Ill., last week, and six people died. The Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union is accusing Amazon of requiring workers to keep working through this major tornado. That group is trying to unionize Amazon workers in different parts of the U.S. What could have been different in Edwardsville, had workers been unionized?

What would be typical, if the location were unionized, is that the union and management would have negotiated some safety protocols. There would probably have been a health and safety committee. There would be certain provisions in their labor agreement, which can be enforced under law, that would have addressed health and safety. There also would certainly have been routine drills, health and safety drills, fire drills. For example: What do you do if a tornado were to occur?

There would have been constant training of new employees so that they understood what the safety concerns were. There would have been union officials who would be on site who would have been responsible for making sure that if workers wanted to leave, they could leave without fear of losing their job. So it would have made a significant difference in terms of preparedness. It’s hard to know how many lives would have been saved under these specific conditions, but we do know that unionized workplaces are significantly safer for workers than nonunionized facilities.

McDonald’s is headquartered here in Chicago, and it’s been in the news with workers complaining about their rights and their working conditions. Is that a company where you see potential unionization efforts?

Large, fast-food businesses like McDonald’s — they’re kind of serial violators of worker rights. And therefore that does make them targets for organizing. It’s a challenge to do so because they have this corporate-franchise mix. Corporate can sort of wipe their hands and say we have nothing to do with what happens, you know, at the franchise and the franchise might have a narrow margin, and you’ve got fewer employees. And so instead of unionizing, because we haven’t seen that yet, you have seen a lot of organizing pressure put on McDonald’s. And it is interesting McDonald’s and not McDonald’s alone. But Walmart, for example — even Amazon — we’ve seen the starting pay for workers increase. And you’ve seen a lot of efforts on the part of statewide and city legislators that have passed minimum wage ordinances. So a lot of workers have gotten at least pay increases as a result of public policy and political pressure. But yes, the Walmarts of the world, the large retailers, the fast-food industry, there’s lots of people hired in this field, and it’s largely non union. And so there’ll be continued efforts to change workplace practices there — no question about that.

How do unions fit into the larger workforce picture right now, with so many people quitting their jobs in what many people call the “Great Resignation?”

I totally understand why that term is used. If you will, I’ve come to refer to it as the “Great Resistance” or the “Great Refusal” because workers know that they’re going to work. They know they have to work. I mean, unless you’re able to retire, you’re going to work. But you want to work safely; you want to be paid well; you want to have a higher quality job. And that’s where the labor movement comes into play.

Because workers who maybe had never thought about joining a union or had been resistant, or maybe just indifferent, when they realize that their jobs really aren’t that safe, or they’re not treated that well. Or, “Boy, I’m really not paid anywhere near what I need to be paid, and there’s not much cooperation from the employer in terms of my child care and balancing work and family. It’s pretty apparent that I can’t do these things on my own. So I’ve got to raise that quality up.” And one way to do that is to do it collectively. And doing it collectively means that you form a labor union, and you negotiate a contract. So I think unions become the solution to this problem.

What do you predict for 2022?

I think you will continue to see a lot of worker resistance to working low-quality jobs. I also think we’re going to see employers a bit more responsive. We’ve already begun to see wages go up in some of the lowest paid occupations, so I think we’ll see some improvement in that regard.

I think unionization efforts will continue to unfold. It’s hard under American labor law — even under better conditions for workers, it’s hard to form a union. The law really does give the upper hand to the employer. And we don’t know what’s going to happen with elections and midterm elections in 2022, and how that shapes up. But I think we should expect that the workplace will be at least marginally improved for workers, and that labor unions will be an important part of that story. Certainly, Amazon’s going to continue to be a focus of a lot of heavy organizing.

Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on Twitter @estheryjkang.