Starbucks employees and supporters reacting as votes are read during a union election in December in Buffalo, New York. Photograph: Joshua Bessex/AP
Originally published in the Guardian, 8/8/22
We supposedly have the most pro-union US president of our lifetimes. Let’s see him act like it
In June, workers at a Chipotle restaurant in Augusta, Maine, became the first in the company’s history to file for a union election. Less than a month later, the company closed the store. In shutting down a location that was set to unionize, Chipotle was keeping company with Starbucks, which has suddenly undertaken a campaign to shut down several unionizing locations from coast to coast due to “safety” issues, and the health food company Amy’s Kitchen, which last month closed an entire factory in California where workers were organizing. It is, of course, impossible to “prove” that these companies closed these locations to try to crush the union drives, in the same sense that it is impossible to prove that a schoolyard bully meant to punch you in the face: he claims that he was merely punching the air while you happened to walk in front of his fist. Who’s to say what’s true in such a murky situation?
Plausible deniability aside, this is an extremely serious problem. Not just for the underpaid, overworked employees at all of these low-wage jobs, desperately hanging on to financial survival by their fingernails, but for all of us. America is mired in a half-century-long crisis of rising inequality that has been fueled, above all, by the combined erosion of labor power and the growth of the power of capital. The American dream enjoyed by the lucky baby-boom generation – buying a home and sending your kids to college on one income – is dead and gone, replaced by a thin crust of the rich sitting atop a huge swamp of once-middle-class jobs that no longer offer enough to sustain a middle-class lifestyle.
The power of workers relative to the power of the investment class must be rebalanced. Rebuilding the power of unions is the only way out of this trap, unless you are credulous enough to believe that we will all be rescued by the sudden radicalization of the tax policymakers on the House ways and means committee. If you ever want to live in a country where the American dream is more than a cruel, tantalizing joke, you have a stake in the revival of organized labor.
So when you see a big company closing down operations because workers there want to unionize, you should be pissed. Such coldhearted retaliation against people exercising a fundamental right on the job goes to the very heart of how we got all this inequality in the first place. It is meant not just to derail one union drive, but to strike fear in all the other workers who see it happen: if you ask for what you’re worth, this could happen to you. Shut up and eat your gruel, and be happy that the kindly billionaire CEO is allowing you to earn enough not to starve today. Even if you don’t work at a fast-food outlet or a factory, this should enrage you, as a human being. It is an assault on human dignity.
America’s convoluted and hostile labor laws actually do allow a business to shut down in response to unionization, unless (and this is important) the company is doing so in order to scare its remaining employees out of unionizing – in other words, exactly what big employers like Chipotle and Starbucks would be doing by closing stores where workers have organized, as workers at many other stores across the country looked on. (Government regulators have not yet ruled on the legality of the recent closures by those companies.) Unfortunately, the evil, high-priced union-busting attorneys these companies hire are well aware that the gears of justice in labor law grind so slowly that even on the off chance that they were found to have closed the stores illegally, it would be far too late for it to mean anything to the workers who were laid off and forced to go find other jobs. The scary, unsubtle message to the company’s workforce would have already been sent.
That’s why this stuff is not really a question of law, but of power. The working class, galvanized by the near-death experience of the pandemic, is busily organizing in new industries across the country; the labor movement today is as energized as it has been in two generations. Corporate America is determined to stop this. In the mid-1950s, one in three Americans was a union member; today, that figure is one in 10. Companies know that their ability to extract excess profits will go down as union density goes up. This is going to be a hard, nasty fight. As all of those recently laid-off Chipotle and Starbucks and Amy’s Kitchen workers know, it already is.
It is also a golden opportunity for a Democratic party that has spent the last six years wringing its hands about losing working-class voters to the pseudo-populist (and racist) appeal of Trumpism. Want to get working people enthusiastic about Democrats again? Then the Democrats should help working people. National Democratic politicians should be holding press conferences decrying the greedy chief executives closing these stores just because workers tried to stand up for themselves. Joe Biden should be screaming his head off about billionaire Starbucks chief Howard Schultz’s disgusting union-busting at the same volume that Ron DeSantis is blathering about “woke corporations”.
Republicans are insincere ghouls who want to harvest working-class votes while their policies stab working-class people in the back – but Democrats are ceding the terrain to these scumbags by failing to match their fervor. We don’t need our politicians making anodyne statements about how unions are nice. We need a rain of zeal and fury emanating from Washington, to terrify companies away from closing down their union stores with threats of merciless retributions from the state.
History shows that organized labor thrives when it has the government’s support, and suffers without it. We are supposedly living under the most pro-union president of our lifetimes. So? Let’s hear some damn fire, man. The only reason companies feel so free to abuse their workers is that they don’t believe anyone will make them pay for it.
Hamilton Nolan is a writer based in New York
Guardian, August 8, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/