the year the workers said “no”

  • In April 2021, a record number of workers left their jobs – a trend that has not stopped.
  • At the same time, a wave of organization has swept through retailers, such as Starbucks and Amazon.
  • And some workers come together to protest low wages or poor conditions without unionizing.

A year ago, if you had asked Hope Liepe if she would work at a unionized Starbucks, she “probably would have said that was crazy and would never happen, especially at Starbucks.”

But last month, the Ithaca, New York, store where the 18-year-old works as a barista joined a wave of Starbucks stores officially voting to unionize.

“I remember that day. We all came together in this great watch party,” Liepe said. “Just the excitement and joy you might feel from all of us for accomplishing something together and being able to move together to form a better place to work for all of us.”

Since then, all three Ithaca sites have voted to unionize, along with more than 50 Starbucks Stores at national scale. Apple employees in Atlanta and New York are looking to follow their lead. And the Amazon Labor Union won an upset victory, marking the retail giant’s first-ever unionized warehouse.

“We are listening and learning from partners at these stores as we always do across the country,” Starbucks said in a comment to Insider. “From the beginning, we have been clear in our belief that we are better together as partners, with no union between us, and that belief has not changed.”

Liz Shuler, president of the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor federation, said the past year has shown “workers on the move”.

“Coming out of the pandemic, workers have not only shown their resilience, but they have shown that they are ready to draw a line and demand more,” she said.

union activists on strike with Kellogg workers

Left to right: David Woods, BCTGM International Secretary-Treasurer; Liz Shuler, President of the AFL-CIO; Dan Osborn, a laborer; and Sue Martin, president of the AFL-CIO of Nebraska.

Dan Osborn

It is difficult to say that unionization is at a turning point. While Gallup found that 68% of Americans approved of unions, a level not seen since 1965, actual membership numbers fell again in 2021.

But one thing is clear: America’s work culture has changed dramatically in the past year. The demand for higher wages, a rise in so-called anti-work attitudes, “slowing down” and the thirst for organization are just some of the tools workers wield with might. The year workers said ‘no’ to what they saw as low wages and poor conditions began last April when Americans walked off the job disorganized at a record 4 million pace. resignations – and it hasn’t stopped since.

“I think the pace of change surprised me,” Shuler said. “We always knew the potential was there.”

“It’s a time when people find their voice and are ready to stand up and say, ‘We’re not going to take it anymore,'” Shuler added. “So whether you’re unionized or not, I think the workers are pretty dissatisfied with their jobs — and they’re taking action.”

Saying “no” means quitting, unionizing, slowing down or protesting for more

April 2021 triggered a wave of abandonment felt across the country.

It was around this time that vaccines began to become widely available, and people who held back from quitting during the height of the pandemic took the leap. There was also pure discontent: Entering a new wave of the pandemic, workers began to reflect on how they were being treated – and for many it fell short.

“Look, we can try to come up with a sophisticated answer to why people quit,” Labor Secretary Marty Walsh told Insider. “At the end of the day, the pandemic has really given people time to reflect on where they are in their personal lives, where they are financially with their families, and putting food on the table.”

Many of these workers have not really stopped working. Many seem to be reshuffling, moving into roles that are better paid or suited to their lifestyle or aspirations.

“Why do people quit their jobs? People quit their jobs because they’re unhappy,” Walsh said. They probably want more money, and many workers have managed to get it, but with a lot of inflation.

It turns out there’s an organized way to fight for more money, better benefits, and job security without quitting your job: unionize.

“I think a lot of people are looking at organizing as an opportunity to collectively support increased wages, increased benefits, increased worker protections and workplace safety on the job site,” he said. said Walsh. In the United States, unionized workers earn $1,169 in median weekly earnings, while non-unionized workers earn $975, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said.

But although Americans are signaling they want higher wages and better working conditions, union membership has been declining since a peak in 1954, and 2021 was no exception.

“It’s a complicated battle because in America there’s this resistance to labor movements,” said Andres Felipe Almeida Gomez, a restaurant owner in New York who is part of the workers’ advocacy group One Fair Wage. “It’s almost considered evil, but now people are kind of waking up.”

Signs of “waking up” don’t always imply unionization. Some workers deliberately decrease their productivity, a so-called “slowdown” in the pursuit of a better work-life balance.

And, there’s a third of work stoppages in 2021 that were caused by non-union workers, according to researchers at Cornell University’s ILR School – like the nine Burger King workers who all dropped the understaffed and high temperatures, putting up a sign saying ‘We’re all stepping down – sorry for the inconvenience.’

Goma Yonjan Gurung, a nail salon worker involved in a campaign to pass the Minimum Standards Council for Nail Salons Act, is one such worker on the streets without a union. She, her nail salon “sisters” and local politicians rallied in Manhattan’s Zucotti Park to demand employers introduce higher wages and standards and give workers more of a voice.

“They’ve worked very hard in this industry and they know the struggle,” she said through a translator.

Nail salon workers rally in New York

Nail salon workers gather in New York.

Coalition of Healthy New York Nail Salons

Gurung said they were asking for “a very strict minimum” and that nail salon workers were entitled to paid holidays and pensions just like any other worker.

“I spent half my life working in this industry, for over 25 years. After working so many years, I have nothing left when I think about it,” Gurung told Insider. But she hoped nail salon workers would have “something” in the future. “And not end up like me – like pension, vacation, vacation and paid sick leave,” she added.

The “resignation forever” is here

Employers still hold the power – they are the ones who hire and fire, after all – but with what could be a “resign forever” on their hands, they will have to step it up to attract workers.

Some white-collar workers would rather quit than return to the office – or won’t even accept a job interview for an in-person job. A November survey by the ADP Research Institute found that 71% of 18 to 24 year olds said they would consider looking for another job if they had to return full time. Service workers are turning their backs on low-wage industry for better wages, benefits and conditions.

In Wisconsin, where nurses at UW Health have been trying to unionize since 2019, the return of a union “would go a long way in recruiting and retention,” said Zach Sielaff, a 38-year-old registered nurse in the ward. children’s operation. .

UW nurses on an information picket

UW nurses on an information picket.

UW Nurses

On top of all that, the perception of organized labor has “changed dramatically” over the past year, Shuler said, driven in large part by a court of public opinion that monitors workers who organize. .

So what has happened since April 2021? Workers, especially those on low wages, have emerged from a pandemic where, for the most part, they have had to fend for themselves when it comes to security and financial stability. When economic recovery arrived, workers remembered the position they had been left in – and the sacrifices they had been forced to make. Now they had more options.

For some, it was giving up. For others, it was about realizing that the people standing next to them as they struggled to find masks and deal with abusive customers were also fending for themselves – and realizing that they could change that together.

“I personally think the labor movement has been waiting for a movement like this for a long time,” said Laura Garza, a Starbucks partner and labor organizer who visited the White House. “I think the pandemic has really opened everyone’s eyes to the fact, ‘Hey, we should be working under better conditions, not under the conditions we were working under, and we deserve a dignity to organize ourselves.'”


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