Unionization isn't Unionism
We are amidst an election filing rush with the NLRB. Is this the path forward for the labor movement?
Most unions are in a membership drive right now. This is quite anomalous. Most of the time, unions are not in a mode of rapid acquisition. However, Striketober energy is endemic (even though it's February past). The baristas in Starbucks Workers United are making this former IWW-SWU barista very excited, but also very anxious. The strategy being deployed could not be more different than what we practiced. I don't pretend I know what's really going to stick and what isn't, since my own workplace committee at Starbucks crashed and burned after a year in 2015. For over 5 years, I worked on-and-off at Starbucks and endured the worst abuse, so I can’t say I agree with the SWU rhetoric about Starbucks being a good place to work. However, a union, any union, at Starbucks is worth being optimistic about.
Workers United, the SEIU initiative behind Starbucks Workers United, has changed things up from their previous efforts in the industry. They are rapidly filing for elections at Starbucks anywhere and everywhere. They are in fact, unionizing. However, shop floor activity, while sure to come, is not the primary focus of the campaign as it appears presently. This isn't an unknown pattern, while it's different than how the SEIU's Fight for 15 campaign looked, it's similar to some efforts with the diverse Amazon union organizing ecosystem, such as the RWDSU efforts at its Bessemer, Alabama warehouse.
A union is more than a card you hold in your wallet. It may seem like a cliché, but if workers are not solid with each other, a piece of paper calling you a union only has so much meaning. I don’t doubt that SWU organizers know this, however my concern is that the broader labor movement easily forgets. Unionization isn’t the same as unionism, what workers have between each other in the course of struggle isn’t something that a labor board, the employer, the trade-union apparatus or anyone else can decide to create or recognize in the same way workers can.
The Shadow of Bessemer and the Rush to File
Whose side is time on? In Bessemer, the organizing started with the filing of the election with the NLRB. The NLRB then told Amazon to stop shuffling its feet and holding it off. So, the show went on, and the union lost the election.
So what happened? The union had what seemed like a perfect storm of political and media attention, with Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders themselves not only supporting the union drive at Bessemer, but condemning Amazon's union busting. What some call "resources", paid staff and money, was certainly somewhere to be found in the coffers of the RWDSU, even if their organizers probably needed more. There was social movement support and the energy from the summer 2020 rebellion that preceded was evident. What was missing?
Some might say, the organizing. For a warehouse of 6000 workers, participation in the rallies in the weeks leading up to the election numbered less than 50. Any look at media surrounding the election will tell you there were definitely organizers and plenty of pro-union workers, but there’s still a lot left to speculation. The warehouse itself had been open for less than a year when the certification was filed in November 2020. That leaves 8 months to organize, and that’s if efforts began right from the beginning, for which there’s no indication that they did. 8 months is an incredibly short amount of time for build a union of 6000 workers starting from nothing, especially under the limits imposed by the pandemic. The main tactic seemed to be activism at the plant gate, and this breakdown by Jane McAveley demonstrates why it was a serious error to substitute this for old-fashioned door knocking and relationship building. Yes, Amazon deployed a full arsenal of cutting-edge union busting, but should that surprise us, and can this kind of activity at Bessemer build something formidable against it?
The lesson we can derive from Bessemer is that you cannot “file and the workers will come”. The approach of filing first and worrying about the organizing later will keep us on the road of defeat and failure, a road the labor movement has been on for some time. When we file, we shouldn’t be anxious about the result, because elections are only meant to tell us what we should already know about the organizing we’ve done. If don’t see higher thresholds for what we need before we file, we will lose when it becomes the bosses’ time to move.
The election filing rush we are currently seeing could result in a thousand Bessemers, which is the least optimistic outcome. The workers could prove us wrong and win every one of them, but we know that is at least as unlikely. What’s more realistic is what the current strategy seems to be headed, throwing as much as possible against the wall, hoping and praying for what sticks and cutting our losses for what doesn’t.
Labor Boards, Friend or Foe?
The purpose of the NLRB is not to necessarily settle labor disputes, but to funnel them into proper channels, where every advantage afforded to the employer, and away from the shop-floor, where workers have the most power. I am a proponent of legal knowledge for the rank-and-filer, and I think the more knowledge and skills in a bargaining unit the better, but this doesn’t change the terrain of the NLRB and the fact that it’s the bosses home turf at the end of the day, no matter how much power we build.
The NLRB is not always on our side, despite what people might say about it's current composition. Regardless of the politics, which we will leave to the side for now, the labor board is likely to present a serious bottleneck that runs the risk of being abused by Starbucks. We can push forward with the filing rush, but if your regional NLRB only has capacity for a limited amount, the future of your union will sit on someone’s desk until they get to it. Labor boards do have standards for responding, but the boss can and will find every way to manipulate the time frame between filing and election to their advantage.
Workers move straight to the defense while they wait on labor boards. Bosses use this period of waiting on the NLRB to fire and re-hire as much as possible. They can fire now when it is strategically convenient, and deal with the legal consequences later. There’s no shortage of IWW campaigns in this industry in which an organizer was fired, only to be reinstated two to five years later by a labor board decision, long after they had moved on and no longer were able to return to their jobs. Or by the time they did, they returned to a hostile work environment with no shop committee to have their back again.
Shop-floor Activity Paves Another Way Forward
The longer we can wait, slowly building the union and fighting from the shadows without blowing our cover, the better. Going public is a huge decision to make. Every corner cut, mistake made and time lost is forever crystallized from that moment. You can’t take it back, one fatal misstep like going public too soon, can seal your fate forever. We want to be in the best possible position, where a formidable and critical mass of the workplace (usually a majority) has each others backs and is ready for action. This level of trust and formidability, even when workers already know each other, does not come overnight, it takes patience and care.
There exists a whole list of shop floor activities that can take us public or semi-public that aren’t filing with the NLRB, that might serve to advance the union, keep the boss on their heels and make sure the shop floor is a contested terrain of power in the course of organizing. None of them are exclusive of filing either, but it does press the question, if we can’t do these things, can we win an election? These things can be done in conjunction with other actions, or with the filing:
March on the boss: may be formal and done in conjunction with a demand for recognition, or it can be informal and around one grievance. Sometimes this is meeting ahead, drafting a letter together, contacting press and community support. Sometimes this just looks like everyone confronting the boss at once. One time at Starbucks, a coworker was told to clock out for their lunch for a captive audience meeting we anticipated would also have anti-union content. We immediately gathered at the managers desks and stepped off the floor to tell them everyone would be clocked in for the meeting, and they immediately conceded. What it meant for us was huge, it showed we could stop production at a moment’s notice, even if it was just for a short period.
Work-to-Rule. This is where you follow rules and regulations so closely it paralyzes production. From warehouses like Bessemer to Starbucks, this can be a very effective show of force behind your demands. It shows a mastery of the production that entails self-organization. It also will make bosses pull their hair out.
ULP (unfair labor practice) filings with coordinated walk-outs, sit-downs, etc. Often these are done while waiting for certification of the union, but can also be coordinated with shop floor activity. You should have at least some help from a union for the filing part, but like the certification, the actual process by the NLRB is not on our timeclock.
Activity demanding recognition (legal to strike for recognition in the US): The boss does not have to wait on the NLRB to be recognized, and you can try to force them to the bargaining table with shop floor activity. This is rarely used but legal in the US. It also shouldn’t be substituted for the broader demands you want, i.e. a whole campaign for recognition rather than a demand for one as a part of a greater campaign.
One thing that Starbucks Workers United is doing with their filings which is good is what McAlevey would likely call a “majority public structure test”, in the form of each worker going public with written statements and signed letters, making it clear to the boss we’re formidable against their fear based tactics. This wasn’t the case at Bessemer, where the media strategy entailed protecting the identities of the workers in case of retaliation. This kind of public facing solidarity could be the difference between losing and winning.
The element of surprise can be major leverage. Most of time, when we organize, we are used to seeing the boss be blindsided when met with collective action. When we file without shop-floor activity, we spoil this critical element. Bosses need to learn about the union staring down at its power from the shop-floor, not by getting a phone-call from corporate. When bosses are surprised, they make poor decisions that are advantageous to us, when they’re pressed and stressed, they are sometimes too afraid to retaliate. It’s not just about sending a message to corporate, you have to put the immediate management who will be cutting the deals, doing the retaliations, and the face of the employer on the shop-floor, on their heels.
We need to fully anticipate union busting and illegal retaliation, instead of expecting the media and labor boards to come to our rescue and produce outrage. The employer is going to act in their interests, every one of them has already decided it doesn’t want a union. Every worker should be fully inoculated against this, the more workers know about what we’re up against and what to expect for them to do to us, the better fighting position we will be in. What makes us formidable against the bosses’ fear based tactics is not an aggressive media strategy or pizza from Bernie Sanders, but what workers have in relation to each other on the shop-floor. Part of the problem is that this isn’t something that most trade-union activists are going to be able to produce by fiat will or initiate from the top-down.
I don’t want to be naïve either, when I say unionization isn’t unionism, I don’t mean to substitute “The Union” for what workers have between each other. When workers take the strategy of shop-floor power, they also make themselves formidable and capable of independence from the trade-union apparatus. This means they authorize their own activity, and that might not be something that labor movement gurus like McAlevey want for us in the long run, but something they know can win the fight in the short term. When it comes time that the workers have to struggle not just against the boss, but the union apparatus that represents them, shop-floor activity is where extra-unionism/intra-unionism also derives its power. We’ve seen the fast-food industry also serve as a place where different union strategies emerge, which often is the result of trade-unions picking and choosing what parts of other activity they like, resulting in something like the McDonaldization of unions.
A new vote is coming in Bessemer after the NLRB ruled the first run was tainted, and organizers have had a whole year to build the kinds of relationships that they couldn’t make the first time around. Starbucks Workers United is currently exploding with no signs of stopping. There’s a lot to be optimistic and hopeful about, but we can’t afford to look at the existing labor movement with rose tinted glasses, or rest assured the current wave is not going to reproduce the failures of a movement in decline. We also can and should continue to support efforts like Amazonians United, which also show an alternative to the trade-unions organizing in the industry, who have shown real results in Chicago and beyond. I’m not counting these workers out either, there’s a good chance there’s people organizing at Starbucks and Amazon right now who know all of this and more, urging their caution. Let’s keep our eye on the ball and think about unions in the long haul, there’s a lot more to them and fighting and winning than filing for the election.
Before You File for that Election - Marianne Garneau: https://organizing.work/2018/08/before-you-file-for-that-election/
Blowout in Bessemer: A Postmortem on the Amazon Campaign - Jane McAlevey:
Common Organizing Mistakes - Nick Driedger:
Amazon Waged a Brutal Anti-Union Campaign. Unsurprisingly, They Won. - Alex N. Press:
Class Struggle and Racial Justice after the Union Drive at Amazon - Robin D.G. Kelley, Barbara Madeloni, Kim Moody, Frances (Amazon Worker), Nantina Vgontzas, Ellen David Friedman, Joe Burns, And Michael Goldfield: https://spectrejournal.com/class-struggle-and-racial-justice-after-the-union-drive-at-amazon/