A Starbucks coffee cup with the words "Order for: Unions Now" written on it.
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Dec. 9, 2021 marked a historic day for union organizers, labor activists and caffeine enjoyers everywhere in the United States, as workers at a Starbucks location in Buffalo, N.Y., were successful in their vote to unionize. With more than 8,000 locations of the well-established chain throughout the country, this vote created a domino effect, and dozens of different locations have voted or made strides to establish unions, from Arizona to our very own Ann Arbor

Most of the recent unionization efforts by Starbucks employees come from similar workplace circumstances and share common goals as a newfound collective unit. In the past two years, there have been significant jumps in the turnover rate in the foodservice industry with no positive changes in hiring rates. Employees of chains such as Starbucks have been consistently mistreated by their employers and customers alike, from aggressive behavior over the requirement of masks in stores to a lack of response from Starbucks’s headquarters to workers’ requests for help. With this in mind, the recent push toward unionization is well within reason.

Starbucks employees are not the only ones fed up with the maltreatment they face under their company management. Similarly, in early April, an Amazon warehouse voted to establish a labor union at their location on Staten Island, N.Y. After multiple failed attempts to unionize the Bessemer, Ala., location, this New York-based warehouse is the first successful effort to form a union at an Amazon warehouse in the United States. 

The fight for this Amazon union began in 2020, when former Staten Island employee and current union co-founder Chris Smalls staged a walkout against the unjust working conditions at Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse. That day, Smalls was fired and told he was neither “smart” nor “articulate” by a powerful corporate lawyer employed by Amazon headquarters. Quickly afterward, Smalls began to organize, hosting barbecues and bonfires, rallying warehouse workers together and successfully making a dent in the “Goliath” that is Amazon with the historic Amazon Labor Union.

Former Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos’s net worth, as of 2022, is $171 billion. Howard Schultz, founder and interim CEO of Starbucks, is currently worth $3.7 billion. On the other hand, the federal minimum wage in the U.S. is $7.25. This raises the question, why do the bosses continue to profit in such substantial numbers when workers are barely scraping by? The solution to this ethical dilemma is simple: unionization.

The National Labor Board was created by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1933. It was a federal agency dedicated to consulting with union-organizing efforts and solving labor disputes. Weak and ineffective, the board expired, and in 1935, the National Labor Relations Act established the National Labor Relations Board. Rather than mediating labor debates, it would focus on enforcing the rights of laborers. Along with the institution of the “new” NLRB, Section 7 of the Act gave workers the right to both form and join labor organizations, and the right to collectively bargain with their employers for their own well-being, as well as restricting company interference in these processes. With the Act, the right to unionization in the U.S. was born.

Unions have been the historical path toward solutions to labor disputes throughout the nation. From the American Revolution to today, collective action by laborers has been successful in making changes in various sectors of employment, including trade, artisanship and industry. The most famous of union federations is the AFL-CIO, which today represents 12.5 million workers in the United States of various labor unions. Labor organizations such as this share the same objectives: provide equal opportunity, safe conditions and sustainable benefits for all workers everywhere.

So, why is the establishment of unions by Starbucks and Amazon employees so revolutionary? Increasingly common successful unionizations in large corporations like these throughout the nation signify a change in the long-standing fight for labor rights. With hundreds of thousands of employees between them, these two corporations have intense influence over the labor market, the economy and our social lives. The success of these unions shows that change to the power of these gargantuan corporations is possible, and entirely necessary. 

Another example of this phenomenon is the Alphabet Workers Union, a union of Google workers that launched in early 2021. Google is a super-power of a corporation, employing hundreds of thousands and worth over a trillion dollars, and this union has been successful in undercutting some of their positional prowess. Organizers have won back promised bonuses for employees, and protected the rights of marginalized staffers. Unionized efforts established under the eye of powerhouses of the market have been successful, and pushes by these new collectives will more than likely have the same, if not greater, social and political impact.

Joining together as workers to protect our rights is essential in our modern society. Unions allow laborers to voice their complaints and concerns, and to protect themselves in an age where profit is oftentimes held to a greater value than personhood. The successes at Starbucks locations across the country and the recent win on Staten Island for Amazon employees are indicative of a change in the tide for labor rights, showing workers everywhere that collective action is possible at any level, from a local restaurant to a multi-billion dollar tech company. 

Change in labor rights is attainable, and it’s happening right now whether companies like it or not. Recent triumphs in union organizing efforts in the United States should be important to you both as a consumer and as an individual — the success of workers in having their voices heard is a success for each and every one of us.

Lindsey Spencer is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at lindssp@umich.edu.