This Labor Day, the deck is still stacked against unions

Ithaca, New York, where I live, became the first city in the United States to have all of its Starbucks stores unionized, in April 2022. A little more than a year later, however, Starbucks closed all three locations. A company spokesperson attributed the decision to staffing issues, high worker turnover and an overall assessment of its “store portfolio.” A leader of Starbucks Workers United claimed the actions reflected a “scorched earth” anti-union strategy.

To date, Starbucks has not approved a contract with any of its more than 300 unionized locations in the U.S. CEO Laxman Narasimhan has refused to sign a Fair Elections Principles agreement proposed by Starbucks Workers United. In 2022, a federal judge ordered the company to reinstate seven workers in Memphis, Tennessee, finding “reasonable cause” to conclude they had been fired in retaliation for union organizing activities. Starbucks’s appeal of this decision was subsequently denied.

Most unions in the United States continue to deliver substantial benefits to their members. Workers with union contracts receive 10 to 15 percent more in wages than peers with similar educations, occupations and experience. Union workers are far more likely to receive employer-provided health insurance, better sick leave, vacation time and retirement benefits. They are safer on the job, suffering far fewer occupational fatalities. Nonetheless, only about 10 percent of wage and salary workers in the U.S. are unionized, the lowest percentage on record. A mere 6 percent of private sector workers are union members.

The fate of Ithaca’s Starbucks shops — and the small price the company is paying for its hostility to collective bargaining — provide compelling evidence that the deck is still stacked against labor unions.

After the combined 47-3 unionization vote in Ithaca, a barista declared, “I think it shows Starbucks that there’s no amount of union busting that they can do to stop us.” Union leaders announced they intended to negotiate higher wages, regular work schedules and health insurance benefits.

Less than two weeks later, however, the store on College Avenue, a stone’s throw from the Cornell University campus, which company officials deemed “the strongest real estate trade position in the area,” experienced a grease trap failure. Wastewater, filled with hundreds of maggots, dead and alive, spilled onto the floor. Citing slippery conditions, foul smells and customer complaints, the shift supervisor recommended closing the store until the trap was fixed. But the acting store manager and district manager insisted that neither health nor safety were at risk and ordered him to keep the store open. All the workers decided on the spot to strike.

In June 2022, citing the “repeated grease trap spills” and “brand needs,” Starbucks permanently closed the College Avenue store. Employees had been given one week’s notice. In November, a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board concluded that the closure was designed to discourage other Starbucks workers from unionizing and recommended that the NLRB order the company to reopen the location. He found as well that the company threatened to withhold benefits and wage increases from workers if they unionized. It also selectively enforced work policies, disciplined or fired activists, and failed to bargain in good faith with Workers United.

In May 2023, Starbucks shut down its remaining two Ithaca stores.

Moreover, as employers expanded their “union avoidance” toolkits, with tacit or explicit support from the Supreme Court, the NLRB has not provided robust protection of the rights of unionizing or unionized workers. Part of the problem is funding. Congress has not increased the budget of the agency in a decade. The number of NLRB staff has declined by about 30 percent since 2010, with most of the cuts made in local offices that investigate claims of unfair labor practices.

This lack of resources and a five-member governing board — which, until President Biden restored a liberal majority, was not all that supportive of unions — have resulted in lengthy intervals between investigations, hearings, decisions and appeals. For Ithaca’s long-displaced Starbucks workers, whose case the NLRB has not yet decided — and many, many others — justice delayed is justice denied.

Equally important, the anti-retaliation measures available to the NLRB are weak. Only the agency, not individuals or groups of workers, can pursue claims of unfair labor practices. The NLRB cannot compel companies to give fired workers their jobs back while cases are pending. Authorized to order back pay if companies are found culpable, the board does not have the power to impose compensatory monetary penalties on them. These constraints give employers every incentive to punish union activists, stall on contract negotiations, shutter stores and pay a pittance in fines.

Legislation enhancing the power of the NLRB, moreover, has not reached President Biden’s desk. In 2020 and 2021, a Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which contained a provision to increase remedies for violations of workers’ rights, passed the House but died in the Senate. In 2022, the Biden administration gave in to pressure to reduce the cost of its Build Back Better plan and eliminated PRO from what became the Inflation Reduction Act. This year, a stand-alone PRO bill is unlikely to get a vote in either chamber.

All that said, on this Labor Day weekend, optimists can point to some hopeful signs. A higher percentage of unionization votes have been more successful than at any time in the last two decades. And following a 2023 “summer of strikes,” two-thirds of Americans, including 88 percent of those under the age of 30, approve of unions.

Is there any chance, one wonders, that voters will make this issue a litmus test up and down the ballot on Election Day 2024?

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of “Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.”

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