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Workers are seeking unions at Starbucks, Dollar General and Amazon locations. Here’s why that matters

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By Chris Isidore, CNN Business

Shellie Parsons never thought she’d be supporting an effort to win union representation at the Dollar General store where she’s worked for a bit more than a year.

“I was actually against unions,” said the 37-year-old single mom. “I’d heard a lot of bad things about the unions.”

She liked her store manager at the Dollar General in Barkhamsted, Connecticut. She considers the other employees in the store to be like family: “I wake up and I want to go to work,” she said.

But she and other employees didn’t like how her store manager’s bosses treated him, and they particularly didn’t like the lack of respect they said they felt from Dollar General’s upper management. The company did not comment on Parson’s allegations.

A year of working during a pandemic, feeling at risk of catching Covid for a job paying only a little more than minimum wage, changed Parsons’ attitude about the need for a union.

She was willing to vote for the United Food and Commercial Workers in a vote held Friday morning, even though she said Dollar General managers have threatened that they might close their store if the union wins.

“I’m tired of being treated unfairly. Our voices need to be heard,” she said. Asked what she hopes unionization will accomplish, she said, “We hope to be treated fairly. We want the respect and acknowledgment of our work. We want to get paid what we should be getting paid, including holiday pay.”

The results of the vote were not known Friday because of two challenged ballots among the seven people who voted. But whichever way the vote goes, Dollar General is not alone. Workers are trying to grab a foothold for unions at other major nonunion employers, too.

Unionization efforts underway at Starbucks, Amazon as well

Workers at Starbucks stores in Buffalo, New York, have filed for a union that would be affiliated with the Service Employees International Union. And workers at four Amazon distribution centers near one another on Staten Island, New York, plan to file cards Monday that are signed by more than 2,000 employees requesting a union vote there.

A precise number of unionization efforts now under way is not available from the National Labor Relations Board, which oversees most private sector elections. And a defeat of another unionization effort at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, earlier this year demonstrates, winning the right to represent workers is an uphill battle for unions today, especially when they run up against an employer with deep pockets.

But these efforts are a sign of the changing dynamics of the current US labor market, with employers unable to find the number of workers they want to fill record job openings — and many more workers willing to walk away from jobs they don’t like.

It’s also a sign of growing activity among labor unions and workers that is also being borne out by a number of high-profile strikes, said Todd Vachon, an assistant professor and director of labor education at Rutgers University.

“Because individual workers feel the chance of being fired is less, they’re more willing to speak up and try to make changes, even without a union in place,” said Vachon. “There’s much more potential to organize in these spaces due to the labor shortage. But the cards are still stacked against unions in these kinds of votes.”

Unions seek to restore power

Unions are working diligently to reverse decades of declining power in the United States. To accomplish that, organizing new members and new industries will be crucial.

While nearly 40% of government workers are represented by unions, only 6.3% of the more than 110 million workers at US businesses were union members last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That is up very slightly from 2019, but the percentage of unionized labor has been steadily declining for nearly 40 years, from 16.8% in 1983, the first year it was calculated by BLS.

In the retail sector, one of the largest employers in the country, it’s even less — only 4.6% of workers were union members last year, mostly at grocery stores.

So, the signs of grassroots organizing efforts at some of nation’s major employers is a sign of life for US unions.

Dollar General is one of the nation’s fastest-growing retailers, with more than 17,600 stores. It started the year with 158,000 employees and has hired 50,000 workers just since mid-July. None of the employees are currently in a union. The company characterized the initial results of three votes to two against the union as a win for the company, though the union could still win if the other two votes end up being counted and they turn out to favor the union.

“We continue to believe a union is not in our employees’ best interests and that our employees benefit most from the open, direct communication we provide and from a work environment that is built on trust, respect and opportunity,” said the company’s statement.

Effort to unionize Starbucks

In Buffalo, many of the workers trying to organize Starbucks stores in Buffalo are very young, in their early 20s. And many said they would be the first ones in their families to ever belong to a union. But they say they feel that a union is the only way to have their voices heard about the way their stores are run, and to win some fairness for longtime coworkers, who often make only pennies more an hour than they do, despite their seniority.

“I’ve worked other places. I think Starbucks better than other companies in the industry. But that’s how they get away with not being the best they can be,” said Jaz Brisack, 24, who has worked at Starbucks for just under a year. “We don’t want it to be a company built on low wages and high turnover.”

Starbucks is fighting the campaign by flooding the Buffalo market with top executives who are holding meetings with employees. Even former chairman and CEO Howard Schultz has visited.

Starbucks says it offers many benefits not offered by others in the industry, including health care coverage for part-time workers and college tuition reimbursement. It has had two wage increases in that last 18 months. It says it its average wage is more than than $12 an hour and more than half of US employees get more over $15 an hour. And it says it has the best retention rate in the industry.

“We are taking urgent action to bring your store operations back up to our standards,” said Allyson Peck, the regional vice president for Starbucks, in a letter to Buffalo employees. “We’ve heard and seen firsthand the challenges you’ve faced in your stores. It’s not okay — and you deserve better. We are bringing additional recruiters and managers to help with staffing”

The company has asked that the NLRB hold an election among all 20 company-owned stores in Buffalo, not just the few where the unions has filed for a vote where it has the most support. The company said that’s crucial, given how workers move between stores as needed and need to have the same pay and work rules, no matter where they’re working.

The union argues they’re just trying to dilute the support for the union.

“If we had petitioned for the whole district, they’d say the vote should be the whole state. If we petitioned for a vote for the whole state, they’d say the vote should be the whole nation,” said Richard Bensinger, an organizer for the SEIU.

Starbucks said it is not opposed to unionizing efforts but that it doesn’t think it’s in the best interest of its workers to bring in a “third party,” such as the union.

“You have the right to work directly with Starbucks — and if you don’t want to give up that right, you should vote ‘no,'” wrote Starbucks’ Peck in her letter.

The young leaders of the Buffalo organizing effort are very confident.

“There’s rising inequality. People are treated poorly at their workplaces,” said William Westlake, 24, who has worked at Starbucks just less than a year. “I don’t think that Starbucks can turn back the tide of organizing.”

A recent poll by Gallup shows strong support for unions among younger workers. The poll found 68% of respondents have a positive view of unions — the best reading for that question dating back to 1965, and up from only 48% in 2009. That was far behind the 77% of those 34 and younger who have a positive view.

Another union vote requested at Amazon

Chris Smalls is the 33-year-old president of the Amazon Labor Union, a newly formed independent union trying to organize the four warehouses Amazon operates on Staten Island. Smalls was fired from Amazon last year, he said because he led the walkout to protest work conditions and safety protocols in the early days of the pandemic.

Amazon said he was fired for violating the company’s quarantine and social distancing rules after he continued to have contact with Amazon workers after he was exposed to someone with Covid.

Smalls said besides pay and benefit demands, he believes key issues in the vote will be quality of life issues, such as the need for longer breaks.

Amazon echoed the statement of the other companies that it believes its employees are better off without a union.

“Our employees have the choice of whether or not to join a union. They always have. As a company, we don’t think unions are the best answer for our employees,” said spokesperson Kelly Nantel. “The benefits of direct relationships between managers and employees can’t be overstated — these relationships allow every employee’s voice to be heard, not just the voices of a select few. We’ve made great progress in recent years and months in important areas like pay and safety. There are plenty of things that we can keep doing better, and that’s our focus — to keep getting better every day.”

Amazon, both last year when the pandemic started and during the Alabama organizing campaign, insisted that it is listening to workers’ comments about work conditions and doing everything it can to keep them safe from Covid.

“Every day we empower people to find ways to improve their jobs, and when they do that we want to make those changes — quickly,” said Nantel. “That type of continuous improvement is harder to do quickly and nimbly with unions in the middle.”

Smalls said the independent union has growing support among the Staten Island workers and he’s confident that it will be more successful than the failed attempt in Alabama earlier this year, even though it doesn’t have the deeper pockets of that union-supported effort.

“Everything is different,” he said. “This is New York, not Alabama. And our energy is different. This is completely worker-led.”

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