Anchor Staff Writer
The COVID-19 pandemic changed the paradigm of the United States in more ways than one. As lockdowns rapidly swept through states, workers in the country faced mass layoffs, lost wages and economic turmoil. Since the workforce conditions began to cool down from the COVID-induced troubles, workers returned to their previous inadequate normal — and companies have begun to reap more profits than ever. After a year of chaos and uncertainty in 2020, and indignation and organization in 2021, the year of 2022 can now be known as the birth of the next worker’s revolution in America.
The wave of labor organization sweeping the nation can be traced back to early 2020, when Amazon warehouse worker Chris Smalls organized a walkout, accusing Amazon of flaunting COVID measures, such as forcing sick workers back on the job and refusing to enforce social distancing measures. Amazon swiftly and illegally fired Smalls, disparaged him as “not smart or articulate” in a leaked memo, and had him arrested by the New York Police Department for trespassing while he delivered food to workers in a parking lot. Following his firing, Smalls founded the Amazon Labor Union in 2021 and now, one year later, the ALU achieved a victorious unionization vote at Smalls’ original warehouse.
Since the formation of the ALU, companies such as Apple, Chipotle and Trader Joes have all gone to task battling a rise of worker organization. None of them, however, have executed a more infamous campaign of union busting than Starbucks. The coffeehouse chain has been caught in a maelstrom of grassroots organization efforts, with partners achieving 239 union victories to date and demanding fair pay, acceptable levels of staffing, and a safe and secure working environment. Recognizing the dangers of an empowered workforce to their board’s profits, Starbucks has retaliated with a large-scale campaign of pressure, surveillance, firings and store closures.
A Rhode Island based Starbucks worker, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal, detailed the severity of Starbucks’ union busting activities in their store. “We were forced to watch anti-union videos, and they put anti-union posters all over,” the worker told The Anchor. The worker also disclosed one-on-one meetings where their benefits were implicitly threatened, and how management was instructed to “put pressure on the most tenured partners,” as they were seen as the most vulnerable to unionization efforts.
Americans are overwhelmingly in support of labor unions, with 71% of those surveyed indicating favorability, a 57-year high. This is not without cause, of course. The modern working environment is stagnated with static wages and rampant gender and racial inequality, and union representation provides workers with fair wages, workplace democracy, pension access and job security. In essence, labor unions ensure that workers are treated like humans with inalienable rights, which explains the violent crackdown on organization by companies feeling their profits threatened.
In one notable example, Walmart systematically closed stores with connections to OUR Walmart, a worker center and affiliate of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, citing reasons such as “plumbing issues.” In a case in Woonsocket, police guarding a DHL-affiliated facility assaulted and arrested four striking workers. Companies like Chipotle and Starbucks have been inundated with anti-union measures, both closing union-linked stores and in Starbucks’ case, firing up to 110 workers in retaliation for their organizing efforts.
In the backdrop of the rapid fire of union-breaking measures, private-sector workers have bore the brunt of recent economic pains. As wages for CEOs have continued to rapidly climb, wages for lower-level employees fail to keep up with inflationary pains. Without a grassroots movement to take on the greed of anti-unions directly, these abusive practices will continue to grow in size and scope. The decentralized and worker-led Starbucks Workers United and the flourishing ALU stand as testaments to the power of workers’ rights when they are fought tooth and nail for. In this regard, the battle for fair representation cannot be fought from the sidelines by anyone. For this worker’s revolution to thrive continuously, the voices of all, fighting for a union or uplifting the movement, must be heard loud and clear, and deceptive and malicious practices must be called out, resisted and fought.