The President's Column: Expanding the Movement

October 11, 2022

Showing solidarity to new union members builds our own power at the bargaining table.

GG_42522.jpgThe mainstream media has downplayed one of the biggest stories of the year. I’m referring to the tens of thousands of workers organizing themselves into new unions. I’d say they “somehow” missed the significance of the story—but, of course, the media is owned and run by billionaires; workers forming unions is about the last thing they want their viewers and readers to learn about.

Unsurprisingly, the upsurge is most dramatic among low-wage workers—at places like Amazon, Starbucks, Trader Joe’s, Chipotle and elsewhere. These new union members include the children, sisters, brothers and spouses of our own 1199SEIU members (it is no accident that the greatest upsurge of new union activity is in New York City, which already has higher rates of union membership than most parts of the country).

The biggest victory was at the Staten Island warehouse, where in April, the newly-formed Amazon Labor Union won a vote to represent 8000 workers. Amazon warehouse workers at various sites around the country are now organizing to join their Staten Island sisters and brothers.

Starbucks workers’ organizing is just as impressive. The $100-billion corporation has 9,000 coffee shops in the country, each employing only 15-30 workers. This means the workers have to organize shop-by-shop— three or four in Buffalo, another in Mesa, Arizona, another in Spokane, WA, and so on. Like the Amazon warehouse employees, the workers are organizing themselves, largely without help from the rest of the labor movement (Workers United, an SEIU affiliate, has given crucial help to the Starbucks campaigns).

They have already won elections in nearly 250 shops, rarely losing a vote, with dozens more recognition elections scheduled.

As we 1199ers know, once workers vote to recognize the union, the difficulty is in forcing the employer to negotiate a first contract. Billion-dollar corporations have batteries of lawyers skilled in delay, stalemate, legal maneuvers, etc. to avoid collective bargaining.

Amazon principal owner Jeff Bezos alone has a personal fortune worth $150 billion.

That is 150,000 million dollars. Amazon’s net worth is ten times that—$1.5 trillion. Bezos, together with two other multi-billionaires, own as much wealth as the 160 million workers living paycheckto- paycheck at the bottom of the American economy. Obviously, Amazon can afford to pay decent wages; it pays millions of dollars to its lawyers to avoid doing so. Same with Starbucks, Trader Joes, Chipotle and other corporations that have built enormous wealth from the labor of their low-paid workers.

Fortunately, the National Labor Relations Board appointed by President Joe Biden—who the Washington Post called the most pro-union president since the New Deal—actually sides with workers in enforcing labor law. This year, the NLRB has forced fair recognition votes and compelled corporations to rehire pro-union workers they have fired. Moreover, public opinion polls show that 71 percent of the public approves of unions—the highest percent in half a century. If ever there was a moment to rebuild the labor movement, this is it.

We in 1199SEIU are among the very fortunate minority of workers whose union continues to build power. But we do not live and work in isolation. Building solidarity and growing the labor movement is not only essential for newly-organized union members; it also builds our own power when we face our employers across the bargaining table.

Solidarity with the Amazon, Starbucks and other workers in their fight for their first contracts must become a priority for all of us.

The upcoming midterm elections for Congress and state officials are part of that fight. The ballot provides a stark choice between pro-union candidates—and those who want to give billions more to wealthy corporations. Next month’s elections will not only help decide the future of our very democracy, of our right to control our lives and our bodies, of whether we are part of humanity’s fight to save the planet from climate change. The elections will also help determine whether the current wave of workers’ organization is accelerated or stopped in its tracks. I am confident, my 1199 sisters and brothers, that you are up for this challenge. Let’s go!

1199 Magazine | September / October 2022