Despite union victories at Starbucks, Amazon and Apple, labor laws keep cards stacked against regulators
In recent history, start-up union victories have been the exception rather than the rule, and American labor laws are still stacked in favor of employers.
826 union elections were held in January-July this year, 45% more than in the same period in 2021, according to a CNN analysis of data from the National Labor Relations Board, which oversees the regulation of votes in most US companies. . And the 70% pass rate by unions in those votes is much better than the 42% pass rate in the first seven months of 2021.
But only 41,000 potential union members were eligible to vote in the 2022 election. Even if unions won all those votes — the NLRB data doesn’t show how many workers worked at each voting company — that would be a drop in the pool among the companies’ 105 million workers. Americans who don’t belong to a union, according to Labor Department statistics.
A grassroots campaign for United Starbucks workers is a large part of the reason for the surge in organization.
A vote has been held in nearly 300 Starbucks stores so far this year, and while some results have yet to be decided, the union has won in about 200 stores where the results have been certified, or 85% of those votes.
But these corporate giants don’t take union efforts false. In some cases, companies have shut down the site rather than deal with the regulatory effort.
The union said last month that eight of the 19 stores due to close had either voted for the union, applied to vote or started to organize. And there is little in the labor law that prevents the company from doing this.
Few penalties for anti-union actions
“Employers have the upper hand,” said Todd Vachon, professor of labor relations at Rutgers University. “It’s hard to prove that’s why they were closed. And the penalties aren’t even a slap on the wrist, they’re the shaking of a finger.”
Labor experts say companies have nothing to fear in firing employees who participate in the regulation effort.
At most, they would have to pay late payments, plus some modest benefits, to the employee if the NLRB convinces a judge that the company is guilty of misconduct. The amount the company owes can be reduced for any money the employee has earned elsewhere while they wait for their case to be heard.
“Penalties are remarkably low,” said Alexander Colvin, dean of Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
It took six months for the NLRB to win a federal court ruling to fire employees for their union activity. Starbucks has denied any wrongdoing and is appealing the case that prevented any of the workers from returning to their jobs.
“I was shocked at first when I heard about the first shooting,” said Nabrita Hardin, 23, a barista who has been in the Memphis store since December 2020 and was among the seven who were fired. “I was actually the last to get fired, so I was ready. At first I was kinda sad and angry. I’m a great worker. I never had a problem with management, never had a problem, and I was never written.”
Hardin now works in a locally owned coffee shop that she said treats her better than Starbucks. She said she was not surprised that Starbucks continued to appeal the case.
“They know clearly that they have lost the case, but they are dragging it on,” she said. “It’s a slap on the wrist for a company the size of Starbucks.”
The union won the vote in Memphis in June. But no other store in the city has applied for elections. Hardin believes that the impact of the shootings on the union movement there has been mixed.
“I felt that when we were fired, it would negatively affect the campaign,” she said. But he encouraged some people to fight hard to say enough is enough.”
Overall, the NLRB has filed more than 19 complaints of unfair labor practices covering 81 cases brought by Starbucks United workers. Hundreds more are processed.
Negotiating contracts the next big challenge
So far, Starbucks has not negotiated a single contract with any of the stores that voted to form a union. It usually takes more than a year to win the first contract after a successful union vote. Cornells Colvin said there is almost no penalty for an employer who does not reach a union contract.
“That’s the next big question – can they win contracts?” He said. “If you don’t start getting contracts, you won’t be able to maintain the momentum.”
The AFL-CIO, the largest union federation in the United States, has been pushing for labor law changes to put some teeth in the penalties the NLRB could seek against management, and seek arbitration if a newly organized company refuses to negotiate with the union. But given the current political situation in Washington, with Republicans united in opposition, there seems little chance that the AFL-CIO will be able to pass its top priority in the near term without eliminating the 60-vote-requiring blockage to get anything through the Senate.
“We’re not saying it’s going to be easy,” said Fred Redmond, union treasurer. “We’re not giving up on that… It’s legislation that basically rewards the playing field so that workers don’t have to face punishment and abuse.”
Guilds are more popular
Unions are becoming more popular among the general public, especially among young workers like Hardin. A Gallup poll last week showed that 71% of Americans now approve of unions, the highest approval rate since 1965.
But when non-union workers were asked to rate how interested they were in joining a union, enthusiasm was low. On a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being very interested and 1 not being interested at all, only 20% answered 5 or 4. Nearly two-thirds gave 1 or 2.
This reluctance, combined with the state of weak penalties available against employers, is a major reason union membership has been steadily declining for decades.
Labor Department data shows that only 6.1% of private sector employees are union members, down from 16.8% in 1983. While union representation is still common in some sectors, such as airlines, manufacturing, and healthcare, it is much lower in retail, which is part Of the US economy responsible for the largest number of jobs. Only 4.4% of the 14 million retail workers are union members.