Last year, Brick Zurek, a shift supervisor at a Starbucks in the Loop, found working conditions at the store becoming increasingly untenable.
People coming into the store threatened and screamed at baristas. One person, after being served a cup of scalding hot water, poured it on the manager, Zurek said. On top of that, the store was short-staffed, sometimes with just a few baristas tasked with serving a line out the door.
Zurek had read on Twitter and in the news about Starbucks employees in Buffalo, New York, who were pushing to unionize their stores.
Zurek thought about the threats, the violence, the unrelenting workload, and wondered: “What if we had a bigger say? What if we could make it so that wasn’t allowed?”
Zurek has worked for Starbucks for about two and a half years, and at the Loop store at Randolph Street and Wabash Avenue since it opened in October. Last fall, workers there began discussing the possibility of forming a union. Zurek reached out to Workers United, the Service Employees International Union affiliate that now represents Starbucks workers across the country. In January, baristas at the store became the first in Chicago to file for union representation. Votes in a union election there will be counted June 7.
Nine Chicago-area stores followed Zurek’s in filing for union representation. Last week, baristas at two Starbucks in Edgewater won union elections, becoming the first in the city to unionize. Union elections for four other Chicago Starbucks are scheduled in June.
Nationally, workers at more than 270 Starbucks have filed for union elections, according to late-May data from the National Labor Relations Board. The company has pushed back, prompting numerous complaints from the agency alleging violations ranging from illegally firing workers who are seeking to organize to illegal surveillance. The NLRB has filed federal court actions seeking reinstatement for workers in two states. Of the 121 elections that have been held nationwide as of Monday, baristas have lost 14. (A handful of results are being contested.)
The Starbucks campaign is one of the most visible in a recent upsurge in labor organizing: Between October 2021 and the end of March, union representation filings with the National Labor Relations Board were up 57% when compared with the same period in the prior fiscal year.
Workers in industries that have traditionally been thought of as difficult to unionize are organizing in greater numbers, in campaigns spearheaded by workers themselves in which professional labor organizers have taken a backseat. Amazon warehouse workers on Staten Island stunned the mainstream labor world when they voted to unionize with the Amazon Labor Union, although their win has yet to be replicated in another Amazon facility.
During the pandemic, Chicago saw its first major museum union form at the Art Institute, where museum workers were joined by support staff at the museum’s school. Last month, adjunct professors and lecturers at the school announced they would attempt to join them. Last week, Chicago employees at Intelligentsia Coffee announced they had filed with the NLRB to vote on unionizing with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which also represents workers at Colectivo Coffee.
Last year, workers at Amazon warehouses in the city staged walkouts, as did employees at the El Milagro tortilla company. Both groups say their activism led to material gains in their workplaces. (Both companies dispute that worker activism led to those improvements.) Workers at Moline-based John Deere went on strike, as did workers at snack-food giant Mondelez. In the last couple of months, technicians at WTTW and graduate students at the University of Illinois at Chicago went on strike before both groups reached agreements with their employers. Workers at two city McDonald’s walked out in May.
Workers, labor organizers and academics say the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated an existing trajectory set in motion by low wages, income inequality, poor working conditions and a pervasive feeling among workers that they lack a voice on the job. And from hospitals to grocery stores, many workers took note of how their workplaces failed to protect them from the virus.
“I had to risk my life every single day to sell magnets,” said Alexa Reymann, a retail sales associate at the Art Institute’s museum store who returned to work in early 2021 before vaccines were widely available, and when many people on public transit eschewed masks.
“People really saw the willingness of their bosses to let them die,” said Gabriel Winant, a labor historian at the University of Chicago.
At the same time, said Robert Bruno, who directs the labor studies program at the University of Illinois, economic changes brought on by the pandemic, like a tight labor market, have given workers more leverage.
“Because of the pandemic, and supply chains and labor shortages, the conditions structurally have now aligned with their level of grievance and raised consciousness,” Bruno said. “And they feel — and they’re correct to feel this way — that they have more power.”
At first, some of Zurek’s fellow baristas at the Loop Starbucks were hesitant about signing union authorization cards, the first step toward seeking union representation. What turned the tide, Zurek said, was when a man came to the store in December, threatened and harassed people, then threatened to come back with a gun and “shoot all of us.”
“We had been asking for a security guard there for months,” said Zurek, who uses the pronoun they. “And the answer was always, ‘Oh, we’ve got to wait to hear from Seattle and see what they say.’ ”
The next morning, shift supervisors at the store had a meeting with corporate Starbucks employees, whom Zurek felt were dismissive of the baristas’ safety concerns. (About two weeks after the workers filed for a union election in January, Starbucks placed a security guard in the store, they said.)
Starbucks did not respond to requests for comment on the shooting threat or its response.
Shortly after the man threatened to shoot employees at the Loop Starbucks, he came back and glared and gestured at baristas from outside the store, Zurek said.
“That’s when the cards got signed,” they said. “Then it was very clear, this is how we keep ourselves safe, right? Because they’re not going to do it for us.”
The first legal step workers take toward joining a union is to sign union authorization cards. If the majority of employees in a workplace sign cards, their employer may choose to voluntarily recognize their union. If the employer does not, the union drive moves to an election, which can occur when 30% of employees have signed authorization cards.
After winning an election, workers bargain for a legally enforceable contract with their employer, a process that can take months to years. Labor organizers see a contract as the gold standard for workers to ensure better wages and treatment in a workplace.
“Even though there are things that we do enjoy about working there, there’s no guarantee that they’re going to be there tomorrow,” said Anna Feuer, an acquisitions and collections manager who works in the Art Institute’s library, “unless we put it in a contract and make sure that they can’t take it away from us.”
The Art Institute union began bargaining with museum leadership in May.
In a statement, a museum spokesperson said the Art Institute supported the right of staff to unionize, and said it looked forward to “working toward an agreement that meets the needs of all parties while allowing all of us to continue to deliver on our mission of sharing our singular collections with our city and the world.”
The Art Institute also said it “met or exceeded all local and state health guidelines” during the time before vaccines were widely available. “The museum heard and was responsive to staff concerns and made a number of accommodations, including for those who take public transportation,” the museum spokesperson said.
Public approval of unions in the U.S. is at 68%, the highest its been since 1965, according to Gallup polling.
Union approval is higher among young people and people of color, with 74% of workers 18 to 24 saying they’d support a union in their workplace, a percentage that rises to 75% among Hispanic workers and 80% among Black workers, according to a White House task force report released in February. Black women were the demographic most likely to say they’d vote in favor of a union, with an approval rate of 82%.
Those statistics aren’t surprising, said DeAngelo Bester, the executive director of the Workers Center for Racial Justice in Chicago.
“When you’ve been exploited on the job, or were excluded from jobs for years, you know that collective bargaining and collective action is the way to go,” he said.
Despite the uptick in organizing during the COVID-19 pandemic, union membership in Illinois remains similar to pre-pandemic levels, with 13.9% of wage and salary workers in the state belonging to a union in 2021, compared with 13.6% in 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nationally, 10.3% of workers belonged to unions in 2021, the same percentage that belonged to unions in 2019.
“If we’re going to see the actual level of union density in this country change, it’s going to take the kind of activity we’re seeing now continuing and in fact growing over a period of years, rather than months,” Winant said.
Filing for an election with the NLRB can be a daunting process. Workers are often fearful they could lose their jobs or face other kinds of retaliation from companies. Federal law protects workers from being fired or retaliated against for union activity, but employers sometimes break the law. A 2019 analysis of unfair labor practice charges filed with the NLRB found that employers were accused of illegally firing workers in 20% to 30% of union elections. And the process of unionizing can take a long time. On average, it takes 409 days for a newly certified union to sign its first collective bargaining agreement, according to a 2021 analysis by Bloomberg Law.
In Chicago, teachers at the Old Town School of Folk Music have been bargaining for their first contract after voting overwhelmingly to unionize with the Illinois Federation of Teachers more than three years ago.
Speaking at a May rally outside the school in Ravenswood, the Rev. C.J. Hawking, the executive director of Arise Chicago, a workers’ rights organization, noted the organization had been working with the music teachers for four years.
“Sweet Lord!” a member of the crowd called out.
“Sweet Lord,” Hawking said. “Can I get a witness?”
The school’s executive director and CEO Jim Newcomb said he rejected “the suggestion that the school is dragging out negotiations in any way,” and said its relationship with the staff is “100% a partnership between the two teams at this point.”
Some employees who organize their workplaces choose not to pursue formal union elections with the NLRB.
In Chicago, that’s a strategy being taken by Amazon warehouse workers who are part of the group Amazonians United Chicagoland.
A few days before Christmas 2021, Ted Miin, a Chicago Amazon worker, helped organize walkouts at Amazon facilities in Gage Park, where he works unloading and sorting packages for delivery, and in west suburban Cicero.
Workers had learned that employees at other Amazon facilities had received raises that pushed wages up to $18 an hour; at the time, the starting wage at Miin’s Gage Park facility was $15.80 per hour, he said. Workers wanted $3 raises and sufficient staffing levels.
“We’re the ones that are moving all the packages in here,” said Miin, who has worked at Amazon for over three years and is a member of Amazonians United Chicagoland.
About a month after the walkout, Miin said, workers won raises of about $2 per hour. Sufficient staffing is still a challenge, he said.
In a statement, Amazon spokesperson Richard Rocha said the raises “were part of a regular wage review process that occurred over several months.”
Miin said Amazon employees in Chicago, wary of turning their energy toward what could become a drawn-out legal process, don’t plan to file for an election like the one in Staten Island. The group continues to organize; last week, workers at the Gage Park facility walked out in protest of a worker’s firing.
“We’re happy for our coworkers trying this strategy,” Miin said. “For us, we would rather engage in the type of organizing we’re doing now.”
Laura Garza, worker center director at Arise Chicago, which has coordinated with El Milagro employees on their organizing campaigns, said many workers at the company would like to see a labor union represent them.
Still, she said, there is fear of retaliation. Garza said shortly after employees sent a demand letter to the company last summer, El Milagro brought in a consultant from an anti-union firm, though workers were not seeking to form a union. Some employees are scared their immigration status could be used against them.
“It terrifies people,” Garza said. “Risking your own livelihood is not easy.”
Employers that are opposed to unions often argue that workers are better off without a union in between themselves and management, sometimes describing unions as middlemen or outsiders without workers’ best interests at heart. Starbucks has said it believes the company and its employees are “better together as partners, without a union between us,” for instance.
“I think some people’s perceptions sometimes of how a union comes to be in a workplace is a little skewed,” said Bob Reiter, president of the Chicago Federation of Labor. Unions don’t come about, Reiter said, when “someone rolls up in a car one day with a bunch of union authorization cards.”
“Most successful union organizing campaigns are organic,” Reiter said. “They start in the workplace and they build over time.”
Pedro Manzanares has worked for the El Milagro tortilla company for almost two decades. Over the last five years, he said, working conditions deteriorated as demand for the company’s high-quality tortillas increased.
“Instead of hiring more workers, they just increased the speed of the production machines,” said Manzanares, a member of the workers’ organizing committee at El Milagro. “If they had the machines at 50%, they just rose it to 75% and kept the same number of workers, and there came a time when it tired us all.”
Last September, workers at Manzanares’ plant in Little Village walked out, protesting low pay and unsafe working conditions. In March, the Illinois Department of Labor found the company had committed “flagrant” violations of state labor law for allegedly denying workers proper meal breaks. In April, El Milagro workers announced some improvements in pay and working conditions, saying they were no longer required to work seven days a week and the company had installed air conditioning in lunchrooms.
Manzanares, who said he had never received a raise of more than $1 at a time in his 19 years at the company, saw his salary increase from $15.30 to $18.50 an hour. He now works five days a week instead of six.
The company has disputed the raises are the result of workers’ activism. It also disputes the Department of Labor findings, saying in April the company “welcomes an unbiased review of the evidence, including facts that should have been considered as part of a fair and reasonable investigation.”
“We have achieved some things in regard to salaries and work conditions, but there is still a long way to go,” Manzanares said. “And we’re not going to give up on this.”
After working with El Milagro employees, Arise heard from workers at the El Ranchero tortilla chip factory who said they had been inspired by the efforts at El Milagro, a “ripple effect” common with organizing campaigns, Garza said. Workers at El Ranchero, which is operated by a company called Authentico Foods, alleged during a public protest last month they had been unjustly fired after seeking support from Arise in addressing low pay and alleged labor law violations.
“The one thing that workers said to us,” Garza said, was, “Well, we saw what the workers at El Milagro did, and we said why can’t we organize? Why can’t we have our own demands of the company?”
In a statement, Authentico President Alejandro Castro said the company did not comment on “employee concerns.”
“We have an open-door policy through which our employees are welcome and encouraged to discuss and resolve their concerns with management,” Castro said. “We value our employees and always have their best interests in mind.”
Whether these “ripple effects” will translate into significant union growth in the U.S. remains to be seen.
Winant said a renewal of the labor movement on a massive scale is unlikely without legislative or regulatory change. The NLRB, plagued by staffing and budget issues, lacks the capacity to administer unionization cases at a fast clip. Winant also said the agency lacks the legal teeth required to curb employers’ power.
“You need some legal mechanism,” Winant said. “And the legal mechanism is broken right now.”
In April, the NLRB’s general counsel, Jennifer Abruzzo, filed a brief asking the board to reinstate a legal doctrine called Joy Silk, which would make it significantly easier for workers in the U.S. to join unions by requiring employers to recognize and bargain with most unions if the majority of workers sign union authorization cards.
Despite challenges ahead, workers in Chicago speak about the future with cautious optimism.
Reymann, the retail associate at the Art Institute museum store and a member of the museum workers’ bargaining committee, had never been in a union before the Art Institute staff voted for one. Many of her past jobs were not full time.
“I started working when I was 16 in a pizza shop in Ohio,” she said. “Ever since then, everything afterward has been retail.”
“This is a new road that I’m going down,” Reymann said. “For not just AIC, but for myself and for my colleagues.”