A rising unionization push among hourly-wage workers at some of the most iconic companies of this era could become “the most significant moment in the American labor movement” in decades, labor experts say.
Retailers Walmart Inc.
and Target Inc.
thwarted unionization efforts as they grew into corporate giants in the 1980s and 1990s, but today’s fast-growing companies are facing a substantial push. Amazon.com Inc.
had been successful in staving off unions until earlier this month, when workers at its warehouse in New York City’s Staten Island voted to unionize; workers at more than two dozen Starbucks Inc.
stores have done the same in recent months; and a unionization effort has begun to spread at Apple Inc.’s
retail stores as well as other large employers such as REI.
Though labor historians say the push is in its early days, Erik Loomis also said it could be as important to the labor movement as the Service Employees International Union’s organization of janitors in the 1990s and 2000s, and could take on additional significance because of the companies involved.
Organizing the “iconic companies of the new economy… is like organizing Ford
[starting] in the ’30s,” Loomis, who has written books on the labor movement and is an associate professor at the University of Rhode Island, told MarketWatch.
U.S. auto makers were the dominant companies in the most important industry in the nation early in the 20th century. Big Tech occupies that spot today, but unions have so far organized just a fraction of the massive, 1 million-plus workforce of one of the tech giants, Amazon. And to truly build on their early success at Starbucks, they will need to reach others who have similar concerns and grievances at places like Walmart, which has been defeating unions for its entire history.
What could work in unions’ favor and possibly lead to a domino effect: the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on the labor market.
“If you see more wins, you’re going to start seeing waves of unionization,” Loomis predicted.
Comparing Amazon and Walmart
After developing the most important retail business in the U.S. since Walmart, Amazon finds itself at the heart of the fledgling unionization push despite fighting against it just as hard as the bricks-and-mortar retailer.
Amazon and Walmart have been “considered the biggest, baddest antiunion corporations of their era,” said John Logan, a professor and chair of labor and employment studies at San Francisco State University. “They were considered invincible.”
Yet Amazon is now contending with a unionization movement, as different factors converge to create what appears to be a perfect storm. For one thing, the Amazon Labor Union organizers are “intrepid,” young and enthusiastic, Logan said.
“Amazon thought it could do what it had always done and succeed in crushing the union,” he added. “But the ALU organizers were workers, so they had access to the workplace — professional union organizers do not — and they could speak to their fellow workers with a powerful authenticity and say, ‘We are just like you. We know what it is like to work in this warehouse and not to be treated with respect.’ And it worked.”
In addition, working conditions have received more attention partly because of the pandemic, including highlighting equity issues and the plight of hourly-wage workers.
“The pandemic and the labor market are related,” said Rebecca Givan, an associate professor of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. “Front-line workers realized that their bosses didn’t care about their health and well-being… as their companies were making record profits.”
As the S&P 500 index
hit profit margins well beyond any historical performance in 2021, Amazon and Apple both saw record profit of $33 billion and $100 billion, respectively. Starbucks’ 2021 profit of $4.2 billion was more than four times that from the previous year. Walmart’s profit last year fell from the previous year, but it was still $13.7 billion.
Givan said workers are becoming more confident about standing up for themselves and organizing. “They can leave and get another job across the street,” she added.
Loomis agreed. “An Amazon worker can probably find another job right now,” he said, adding that wages are rising and “there are more options for working-class people.”
On the other hand, a Walmart worker may not have the same choices because of geography, Loomis said. Walmart stores tend to be located, in rural areas or away from city centers, and in some places, a job at Walmart may be the highest-paying job available.
Last fall, Walmart said it had raised wages for more than 1.2 million of its workers in the past year, and that its average starting wage in the U.S. was $16.40 an hour.
Walmart workers who have tried to organize over the years have encountered tremendous pushback from the company, which in some instances has been accused of closing stores where its employees were trying to form a union. Loomis recalled that when butchers in Texas won union recognition in 2000, Walmart “simply eliminated butchers from all its stores.”
That type of approach is unlikely to work for Amazon because of the difference between its warehouses and Walmart’s stores. It would hurt Amazon much more to close down a warehouse than it would for Walmart to shutter a store or department, so Amazon workers may feel more emboldened to speak up.
“It’s harder to shut down distribution centers,” said Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor at UC Santa Barbara and author of books about the history of labor. “The whole point of them is to be located near a metro area… a distribution center is about 10 times larger than an individual store.”
Walmart workers continue to be discouraged from organizing, current and former employees say.
Cyndi Murray has worked at Walmart as an associate for 21 years in Laurel, Md., and was a founding member of United for Respect in 2011. Since then, she said the workers group — which was started with financial support from the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union but is no longer backed by UFCW and is not itself a union — has helped secure wage increases, changes to the company’s worker-pregnancy policies and more.
“I don’t think we can be looked down on,” she said. “We’ve made a whole lot of changes. But it’s wonderful to see Amazon workers win a union [vote]. We just need workers to come together and speak up.”
But many Walmart workers are afraid to speak up — if they do, they become labeled troublemakers, one former employee at a Walmart in Florida told MarketWatch. And other employees on online forums, including those MarketWatch tried to contact, say they are scared that any talk about organizing could get them fired.
“When you’re in orientation, they tell you unions are bad, that any talk about unionizing is grounds for dismissal,” said the former employee, who left the retailer last year but did not want to be identified because he is worried about possible retaliation against family members who continue to be employed by Walmart. He said that if any customer even mentioned the word “union,” he and other Walmart associates were instructed to stop talking to that customer and find a manager.
“If Walmart associates were allowed to talk about unionizing, I feel they would,” he added. “[A union] would cut down on workers getting degraded, and poor and unsafe working conditions.”
Walmart did not respond to requests for comment by publication time.
Amazon has long been accused of antiunion behavior as well. One of the leaders of the ALU is Christian Smalls, who was fired by the company after he organized protests over working conditions at his Staten Island warehouse during the beginning of the pandemic. The ALU won the union vote at that warehouse earlier this month and is now gearing up for a unionization vote at another warehouse in Staten Island.
When reached for comment, a company spokeswoman said Smalls was fired for violating quarantine rules. Amazon spokeswoman Kelly Nantel also said: “Our employees have the choice of whether or not to join a union. They always have. As a company, we don’t think unions are the best answer for our employees. Our focus remains on working directly with our team to continue making Amazon a great place to work.”
Absent any known similar unionization efforts at Walmart, employee Murray has for the second year submitted a shareholder resolution calling for the company’s board to create a pandemic workforce advisory council that would be made up of hourly associates, saying the company should listen to the workers on the front lines.
“I believe Walmart’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has failed employees and communities in which Walmart operates and created risks for shareholders,” reads her proposal, which is one of five shareholder resolutions on the proxy.
In its response urging shareholders to vote against the proposal, the company said “We disagree with the assertions made in the proposal that our response to the global health crisis failed our associates and communities.”‘
What comes next as efforts to unionize expand will depend partly on how companies like Amazon, Apple and Starbucks respond. Lichtenstein said the concessions some companies have made during the pandemic, such as raising wages, don’t address many low-wage workers’ biggest complaint — the lack of steady, predictable hours as companies have shifted the burden of volatile demand to workers. Fighting for regular work schedules is something a union would do.
“Wage increases are temporary and can be eaten up by inflation,” Lichtenstein said. “A union is always going to be in the face of management.”
Because of that, said Logan of San Francisco State, he expects companies like Amazon and Starbucks to continue to fight back against the growing unionization push.
In addition, he said “the [National Labor Relations Board] processes are too slow and the penalties that the Board can impose for violating the law (such as firing workers who are union activists) are too weak, and both companies have law firms that are experts in exploiting every weakness and every loophole in the law.”
Then there’s timing. The unionization momentum may also be affected by the possibility of a less labor-friendly political climate, which could start in November if Republicans regain control of the U.S. House of Representatives. That could mean pressure on the NLRB and things like “greater delays for elections, hearings and reinstatements at campaigns such as Starbucks,” Logan said.
When reached for comment about retail workers’ unionization efforts, an Apple spokesman said the company offers “very strong compensation and benefits” to its retail employees. Hourly wages at Apple Stores start at $20 an hour, he confirmed. “We deeply value everything they bring to Apple,” he added.
Starbucks and REI did not respond to requests for comment on unionization efforts at their stores.