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Unionizing efforts continue in states where it was historically difficult

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Posted at 12:49 PM, May 09, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-10 17:09:24-04

Last month, five Starbucks stores unionized in Richmond, Virginia on the same day.

Dillon Dix, Kat Wiggers, and Sophia Anthony all work at Starbucks. The number of years they've worked for the company range from three to six. In mid-April, each of their stores successfully voted to unionize.

"The pandemic kind of definitely shined a light on those attitudes towards us as well, and we felt like our safety was definitely jeopardized too, with how we had to work through lockdowns, how we had a lot of staffing shortages from people and teammates being out from COVID and no help was given," Anthony said.

They say they chose to unionize for better work conditions, stronger pay, and to be treated with more respect.

"I actually like my job," Wiggers said. "I like my co-workers. I like my store. I like I love my store. It's like one of my favorite places that I've ever worked. And I feel like I am not being valued as a partner that's been there for five and a half years."

They started their efforts after they saw the store in Buffalo, New York successfully unionize. However, their efforts were faced with some challenges.

"Just like seeing our district manager and a regional manager in the store way more than we ever have before," Wiggers said. "It's hard to have those conversations when you're like your district manager is there. And like pulling people aside and like telling them like that a union is like a third party and like you can be harassed if you vote no."

"Key challenges to us was getting the fear out of people because a lot of people in any kind of company fear upper management for any reason, especially in a right to work state, because that word's tossed around and people don't actually even know what the full meaning of it is," Dix said.

Different state laws make unionizing tougher in some states. Virginia is one of 28 states known as being more difficult because of its right-to-work laws.

Workers United organizing director Richard Minter says "right to work" refers to states where workers may choose not to pay into the union.

"Right to work is a is a tool, a legislative tool that's used in particular states to undermine the power of labor unions within that state," Minter said.

Cathy Creighton researches labor issues and workplace health at Cornell University. She's the director of Cornell University's ILR Extension Office.

"It really is a blow to labor unions to allow employees to opt out of paying dues and paying for membership, but that the union still has to represent them," Creighton said.

She says knowing the history can help people to understand why right to work exists today.

In 1935, Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act, allowing U.S. workers to unionize. For the next decade, the unionization rate rose to a high level. Then in 1947, Congress passed restrictions on the act allowing workers in right to work states to opt out of paying union dues.

"There was a movement that unions were becoming too powerful, especially during World War II, that there were a lot of there was a lot of strike activity," Creighton said.

Creighton says right to work can discourage people from unionizing when there's no guarantee that everyone will be paying union dues for lawyers, accountants, and union halls.

"Those expenses are usually not very much when they're spread out amongst all the workers, but when a significant portion of the workers are allowed to get all the benefits without having to pay for it," Creighton said.

However, that didn't stop five stores in Richmond, Virginia from unionizing on the same day. Dix says the collective bargaining phase will begin in a few weeks. That's when the new union and the company will hash out employee agreements.

"Collective bargaining is a great thing to have because, you know, everyone gets to voice their opinion about what they want to fight for in our workplace," Dix said. "And so we all, you know, have democracy in our workplace, which is just something that I feel is necessary."

"The more that I see people being like, 'Oh, the younger generation has decided they're not working anymore, they've decided they're going to be lazy, they've decided they're going to rely on government pay or catastrophe pay or whatever', when that's really not it," Anthony said. "Like, we want to work, we want to have a purpose. We like our jobs."

They believe they're part of the younger generation seeing a renewed value in labor unions.