Wins at Amazon and Starbucks Shouldn't Obscure the Hard Road Independent Unions Face

Roundup
tags: unions, labor history, Amazon, Starbucks, Worker Organizing

In the aftermath of the remarkable and unprecedented victory of the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) at a Staten Island facility on April 1, 2022, nearly the entire conversation around the American labor movement changed overnight.

The ALU had defeated Amazon, one of the megaliths of the modern economy, in a union vote. No one had ever beaten Amazon. For that matter, almost no successful campaigns against any of the iconic companies of the twenty-first century economy—Target, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Uber, Walmart, or others—had succeeded. So, under any circumstances, this was front page news.

What amazed almost everyone was that the ALU was an independent union movement with few resources. Almost no one believed the ALU had a shot to win this election.[1] I certainly did not. The union record of even highly centralized unions winning elections against the behemoths of the twenty-first-century economy is nearly nonexistent. To say the least, I, like everyone else in the labor movement, was pleasantly surprised.

The rise of the Starbucks campaign at the same time only gave more energy to a rare moment of labor movement optimism. The Starbucks campaign is nominally independent but has support from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) behind it. As of this writing, the Starbucks Workers United has organized 278 stores, although organizing has slowed in the face of overwhelming corporate resistance from Starbucks head Howard Schulz. All of a sudden, it seems that the new era of independent, grassroots, worker-led unionism is upon us.

That the ALU built itself through GoFundMe fundraising and localized events around beer and barbeque seemed even more unlikely. Where were the high-paid union lawyers, the outside organizers, the centrally planned strategy? All of these, admittedly, had not led to a lot of victories in recent years. But still, they all seemed absolutely necessary for even a preliminary victory.

In the aftermath of the initial victory, there was a great deal of talk about how this was the harbinger for a new unionism, one that focused more on independent unions and less on the current unions that are big organizations, often bureaucratic, and often lacking the radical edge that many labor commenters want.

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