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Starbucks workers at over 100 sites greeted Spring and the company’s new CEO by walking off the job. Some pundits hail this action as a reflection of labors’ growing new strength. Public approval of unions is at a fifty year high, petitions for union elections are on the upswing, and the recent well-publicized organizing victories at Trader Joes, Amazon, outdoor outfitter REI, and almost 300 Starbucks stores, among others. suggest that unions are on the rise. But glowing reports of the resurgence of the American labor movement are premature. The organizing efforts by Starbucks workers illustrate the many obstacles produced by corporate animus toward unions and hostile labor laws. In contrast, many other American labor activists have sought to avoid the strictures of labor law by taking their case directly to the streets and state legislatures, while European labor offers an entirely different model for securing workers’ rights — sectoral bargaining.

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz insists he’s “not an anti-union person.” Growing up in a Brooklyn housing project, he says he understands the working class. He believes that unions have a place in companies that the lack worker-friendly environs of Starbucks, which, he contends, offers the best possible workplace for his so-called “partners.” Instead of helping workers, American labor law gives CEOs like Schultz the tools for keeping unions out. Workers who want a union must first convince co-workers to petition the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for a union certification election. Once 30% of workers sign the petition, the NLRB sets a time and place for the election. Starbucks relies on its union busting law firm of Littler-Mendelson to tie the union up in court for months, if not years. A typical first step is to challenge categories of workers included in the bargaining unit. For instance, the Taft-Hartley Act excludes supervisors and independent contractors from union coverage. Other legal avenues exist for Starbucks to obstruct unionization. While union backers can organize only on break-time or outside the workplace, Starbucks can wage its anti-union campaign twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week by distributing anti-union literature, forcing workers to attend anti-union meetings, and compelling workers to watch anti-union videos. Starbucks can, and does, threaten store closings too, and when the threats don’t work, store closings do.

In addition to legal anti-union activities, Starbucks, like other anti-union companies, frequently violates labor laws. The New York Times reported that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has filed 81 unfair labor practice charges and over 500 complaints against Starbucks for violations of federal labor laws, including illegally disciplining or firing workers for their union activities. Recently, a federal judge in Michigan ordered Starbucks to stop the firings and paved the way for the NLRB to reinstate workers fired for their union activities.

After winning union certification, workers must negotiate their first contract. Because of labor laws, union organizing in the United States is based on the enterprise system, one workplace at a time. Starbucks Workers United, then, must launch separate organizing drives and negotiate individual contracts for each of the company’s more than 15,000 cafes. The union proposed a baseline contract as a national model, which Starbucks refused. To date, no unionized Starbucks store has a first contract. As cited in the Buffalo News, Cornell’s Cathy Creighton observed, “Delay is a frequent and effective tool used by employers in first contract bargaining, because the longer negotiations drag on the more turnover, fear and frustration will work to undermine union support.” Unionized workers responded by filing charges against Starbucks for failing to negotiate in good faith. On two occasions they also walked off the job in protest at more than 100 stores. Starbucks has the resources to prolong negotiations until union members finally give up and vote to decertify.

Starbuck’s resistance to unionization is by no means unique, and labor law reform is nowhere in sight, not only in this divided Congress but even when Democrats held the presidency and both houses: A Senate filibuster stopped reform during the Carter administration, the Employee Free Choice Act died during the Obama years, and a looming filibuster killed Biden’s Protecting the Right to Organize Act.

Labor law often fails American workers, but organized labor is only part of a larger labor movement. Many workers without unions are using their collective power to improve their terms and conditions of employment on an industry-wide basis through the political process. This approach, a nascent form of sectoral bargaining, could represent the future of the American labor movement, as Bill Scheuerman argues in A New American Labor: The Decline of Collective Bargaining and the Rise of Direct Action (SUNY Press, 2021).

Sectoral bargaining – the norm in Europe – is a form of collective bargaining that sets a minimum wage and other contractual conditions across an entire industry for its all workers, unionized or not. This approach removes many of the obstacles American unions face in organizing and raises the standard of living of all workers employed in the same industry. Mandating an industry-wide living wage prevents firms from cutting wages in a race to the bottom and encourages businesses to compete by increasing quality and productivity. Under existing U.S. labor law companies must consent to sectoral bargaining. Tens of thousands of American workers are by-passing federal labor laws by taking their case to state legislatures through direct political actions that seek higher state minimum wages, benefits, and workplace protections for workers on an occupation or industry wide basis.

Broad-based worker gains made through the political process are happening all over the United States. In conservative Arizona, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and West Virginia massive teacher walkouts for better pay, benefits and school funding culminated in successful negotiations with state legislatures, not single school districts. Fast food workers have made similar legislative gains. In New York, Colorado, and New Jersey wage boards set minimum wages and more for the industry. More recently, California has joined this group. As a September 2022 news release from the office of California Governor Gavin Newsome announced:

AB 257, the Fast Food Accountability and Standards Recovery Act by Assemblymember Chris Holden (D-Pasadena), authorizes the creation of the Fast Food Council comprised of representatives from labor and management to set minimum standards for workers in the industry, including for wages, conditions related to health and safety, security in the workplace, the right to take time off from work for protected purposes and protection from discrimination and harassment.

And thanks in large part to Service Employees International Union (SEIU) work with the Fight For $15 coalition, in 2023 the minimum wage will jump to $15 in 23 states. The coalition is now making gains in the struggle for paid family and sick leave, a fight that points to another element underpinning sectoral bargaining in Europe – the strong social safety net of its member nations, including universal health insurance and extended paid parental and family leave. Given the dominance of corporate power in the United States, the road to sectoral bargaining will be built slowly. Already an industry group called Save Local Restaurants has secured a court order temporarily blocking California’s AB 257. But Fight for $15 and One Fair Wage, like the teacher walkouts of 2018, have union help, but they are larger social and political movements that have momentum on their side.

This content originally appeared on Dissident Voice and was authored by Bill Scheuerman and Sid Plotkin.


[1] Almost a year later, Starbucks has no union contract. A look at latest in the high-profile talks ➤[2][3]