Unions making comeback as more workers feel undervalued

BOSTON — The pandemic is creating a huge shift in attitudes about work, including not just how we do it but how we feel about it. This is causing more workers to think about something that hasn’t been popular in this country in years. They want to join a union.

A small group of Starbucks workers recently made a big statement when they voted to form a union at their Buffalo, New York café. Now workers at two Boston-area Starbucks are looking to do the same.

In a recent letter to employees, Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson outlined why the company thinks unions aren’t helpful to their workers. He called the employees the “heartbeat of this company.”

Other well-known brands like Amazon have also seen their workers try to unionize. Several locally-owned coffee shops around Boston have either unionized or are currently organizing.

“Overall, in terms of the last few decades, working people haven’t done particularly well,” said Steve Striffler, Director of the Labor Resource Center at UMass-Boston.

Increases in the minimum wage haven’t kept up with inflation, and the wealth gap continues to grow. A recent article in Time Magazine highlighted some of the extreme growth in wealth among the nation’s richest citizens. Over the past year, Mark Zuckerberg saw his net worth climb from $55 billion to $118 billion, while Jeff Bezos saw a jump from $113 billion to $198 billion. Elon Musk saw his value soar thru the atmosphere, going from $25 billion to $266 billion.

“I think there’s a growing recognition that wealth has become so inequitable, so unequally distributed within this country over the past 30-40 years that it’s time to reset that,” Striffler said.

In that same period, the union participation rate fell by about half to 10% of workers. In Massachusetts, the rate is about 12%. Striffler says the tight labor market today is making workers bolder.

“They do recognize that if they lose their job due to organizing, that’s there’s a decent possibility that there will be other jobs available in that sector,” explained Striffler.

Lucy Hu, an MIT graduate researcher, is organizing her peers to form a union on the Cambridge campus. “A union is the only way we’re going to make a material change because a union secures a contract. A legally binding contract.”

Hu believes this would improve working conditions and provide graduate students with a livable wage. “We hear stories of students thinking about whether or not they need to ration meals to be able to pay their rent.” She’s not surprised the response has been so strong at MIT. “It’s a feeling that we could have a voice and we could feel empowered.”

Still, Striffler believes it’s too soon to know if a wide-scale union movement is about to emerge. “We’ve seen employers embrace policies like increasing wages and signing bonuses. All those things attract workers. Whether that means employers will be more receptive to unions, I think that’s an open question.”