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On August 30, 2021, three Starbucks stores in and around Buffalo, New York, filed union campaign petitions with the National Labor Relations Board.
Over the next eight months, nearly 250 more Starbucks stores followed, leading to an increase in union campaign petitions not seen since 2015. The NLRB reported that union campaign petitions increased 57% in the first half of the financial year 2022, compared to the year before. Starbucks petitions account for nearly a quarter of all petitions filed since January.
Starbucks’ organizing effort is remarkable, not only because of the astonishing speed at which it has spread – more than 40 Starbucks stores have voted to unionize – but also because food service establishments have always been among the least unionized workplaces in the United States Only 1.2% of all workers in the sector were unionized in 2021, according to the Labor Department.
An NPR analysis of union campaign petitions filed with the NLRB found that a decade ago, less than 4% of union campaign petitions came from the accommodation and food services industry – mostly hotel workers and cafeterias seeking to be represented. A notable exception was a Panera Bread store in Michigan.
So far in 2022, the accommodation and food services industry accounts for 27.5% of all union campaign petitions, with a small number of independent cafes in cities such as Minneapolis, Philadelphia and Nashville joining Hundreds of Starbucks locations nationwide seeking union representation.
“Organizing is contagious,” says Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, noting the ease with which workers can now connect with each other. to others via cell phones and social media platforms.
Other factors that have contributed to the recent wave of union organizing include a pro-worker administration in the White House, a Democratic majority in the NLRB and a buoyant labor market. Job postings remain at record highs, leading some workers to put aside their fears of speaking out and demanding more of their employers.
NLRB elections are just one route to unionization
Not all workers who seek to unionize do so through the union election process. Under the National Labor Relations Act, private sector workers can persuade an employer to voluntarily recognize a union after demonstrating that a majority of workers are in favor of unionisation. Bronfenbrenner found that a much larger share of unionization in the private sector, including among hotel staff and concierges, occurs outside of union elections.
Moreover, the number of petitions filed for union elections is not indicative of the total number of workers seeking representation. A Starbucks petition may call for a union election for 25 workers at a single store, while an Amazon petition may call for an election for thousands of workers at a single warehouse.
Yet a review of people who file campaign petitions with the NLRB reveals significant changes taking place in worker organizing, even though union membership in the United States remains low, at just over 6% of workers. unionized private sector. (National labor relations law does not cover public sector workers, about one-third of whom are union members. Their rights to organize vary widely from state to state.)
The organization has moved away from manufacturing into other industries
The number of union election petitions filed between January and April this year is only slightly higher than the number filed during the same period in 2012.
But since 2012, the share of petitions from manufacturing companies has dropped by about half, according to NPR’s analysis. Bronfenbrenner says the drop came as employers moved or threatened to move jobs elsewhere to get away from unions.
“There’s a 75% chance when you go to unionize in manufacturing that the employer threatens to move production out of the country,” says Bronfenbrenner. So manufacturing unions have moved into other industries, including nonprofits and health care, where it’s easier to organize, she says.
So far in 2022, there have been a significant number of election petitions from industries where unions already have a foothold: security, waste management, transportation and healthcare.
But there are also groups of workers seeking union representation in 2022 that don’t appear anywhere in the 2012 data: Amazon warehouse workers, students working as residential counselors, “budtenders” in more than a dozen cannabis stores.
“It evolved over time,” says Bronfenbrenner. “The workforce is changing, and of course who is a union member is changing.”
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The pandemic and other factors have prompted young people to organize
In 2021, according to the Labor Department, union membership was highest among middle-aged workers (45-54) and lowest among younger workers (16-24). But that could change, as unionization successes at Starbucks and Amazon have captured national attention.
The organization at Starbucks stores has involved many baristas in their twenties. Chris Smalls, president of the Amazon Labor Union and former warehouse supervisor, is in his early 30s. At both companies, workers cited the pandemic as a major incentive to organize, saying their companies had not done enough to protect them from COVID risks or reward them for continuing the work that made their companies very profitable in the past. two years.
As they seek to organize, workers are finding plenty of support — from the White House, their peers and the public. A Gallup survey last summer found that 68% of Americans approve of unions, a number not seen since 1965.
Will Chase, Susie Cummings and Julia Wohl of NPR’s Research, Archives and Data Strategy team contributed to this report.