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DONNELLY-FINE: Union fight at Starbucks re-centers importance of organized labor

Column: Existential Red

Organizing remains central, even if it becomes increasingly hard to accomplish.  – Photo by Rutgers AAUP-AFT / Twitter

There are two trends which tell us a lot about the recent history, and hopefully, the near future, of work in America. The first, borne out in reports by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, fewer workers belong to unions here than at any point in 100 years, well past the Depression-era zenith of organized labor. But, promisingly, support for unions is at a 50-year high, most notably driven by young people.

The convergence of labor’s decades-long decline and an increasing class solidarity in younger workers has given rise to recent militancy, with the February 2021 Amazon union effort and fall strike wave and the rapid growth of unions at Starbucks locations, one of the most recognizable brands in the country. 

Driving this newfound agency among underpaid and undervalued workers is a number of factors, all heightened by the ongoing pandemic, which imperils workers and consumers alike.

In Bessemer, Alabama, warehouse workers at Amazon told reporters of intimidation by bosses and a speed of work that was not only unsustainable but also outright dangerous, leading the company to keep an ambulance on standby.

In Dubuque, Iowa, workers at John Deere, members of the United Auto Workers, went on strike for weeks to demand wage increases and to protest the two-tiered system where newer employees were denied access to pension funds.

And starting in Buffalo, New York, since spreading across the country, partners at Starbucks have sought to give their job titles significance by organizing a union and sitting across the table from their employers to improve their stores.  

The concerns cited by auto workers in Iowa and baristas in Buffalo are colored by their experiences, of course. But a common thread runs through the actions they have taken. Their communities are struggling, they themselves deserve dignity, fair wages and a voice at work.

Forming a union and exercising their combined power is the workers’ way of fighting to secure a workplace that values each of them. By law, it is your right in this country to join together and petition your employer for better working conditions. 

At their best, union drives and strikes universalize our experience at work and give us a louder voice when demanding change, whether it comes in the form of higher pay, coronavirus disease (COVID-19) safety measures or a real say when it comes to promotion and firing.

In a New York Times report on the recent organizing at Starbucks across the country, Richard Bensinger, a long-time organizer leading the efforts of Workers United, said “the real question is getting the country to stand up for David, not Goliath.”

That, fundamentally, is what unions and organizing are about. The interests of big business or the growing movement to privatize public education have been winning for most of our lives. But taking the small step to talk to your coworkers, to envision a world where your life is not lived at the whim of a manager and your wages reflect your real worth, is the most important thing you can do to make a change.

There is a long legacy of union organizing and action here at Rutgers, which boasts one of the most unionized workforces of any public university.

The Coalition of Rutgers Unions is made up of 19 local unions and represents 20,000 employees across our three campuses — from facilities and maintenance staff to full-time faculty (This past summer I was an intern for the national union covering both part-time lecturers and professors at Rutgers, the American Association of University Professors and American Federation of Teachers (AAUP-AFT).

Through collective bargaining, thousands of Rutgers employees have made a home in our state, including most recently our part-time lecturers, who in 2019 staged a grade-in to push for union recognition and higher pay, and won.

The Part-Time Lecturer Faculty Chapter of the AAUP-AFT is now negotiating for a new contract, centering demands for more robust sick leave and advocating for pandemic funds to be distributed among their members.

The broader faculty union has also made statements of solidarity with Starbucks workers organizing across the country. Rutgers as an institution is proof that when workers raise their voices, even huge bureaucracies will listen.

In that vein, I encourage the workers at Rutgers’ own Starbucks at The Yard @ College Avenue to follow the lead of the partners in nearby Hopewell, New Jersey, and elsewhere and join the labor movement.

While unionizing is a challenge, it is one that makes work and life better in countless ways and one that I know will be supported by fellow students and the Rutgers community. The world is watching what is happening at Starbucks right now and to quote union organizer Walter Crane, “the cause of labor is the hope of the world.”

Ben Donnelly-Fine is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in philosophy and minoring in history. His column, "Existential Red," runs on alternate Mondays.

*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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