Washington workers are forming unions at the highest rate in years, and Starbucks employees in company hometown Seattle are leading the way, a Seattle Times analysis of federal labor records shows. 

Since October, Washington saw the most petitions filed for union representation since unionization hit a record high during the 2008 recession, according to National Labor Relations Board data. In the past year, the federal board recognized the most new unions since at least 2000, meaning organizers have been succeeding at the ballot box during union votes. 

Besides Seattle, the highest number of successful pushes to form unions took place in Bellingham, Everett and Tumwater. 

The movement is being led by workers at the home-brewed java giant Starbucks.

Across the U.S. and Washington state, Starbucks employees filed the most cases for union representation in 2022. The Pacific Northwest registered the highest number of petitions, and Seattle has emerged as a hot spot. 

In fact, increased unionization at Starbucks made Washington one of the top five states registering unionizing activity for the first time on record. Even during the 2008 financial crisis, when more petitions were filed, Washington’s prominence was not as clear as it is now. 

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In December, Starbucks workers at a store in Buffalo, N.Y., voted to unionize, signaling the revival of a U.S. labor movement that has sputtered for decades. When the organizing push took off in Seattle, organizers said the campaign was transformed.

“At the time, I think Starbucks was still trying to pretend this was a really small thing and it, like, wasn’t in Seattle — like, ‘Oh, it’s just a bunch of people over in Buffalo, it’s not the Starbucks experience,’” said Sarah Pappin, 31, a union organizer and worker at Starbucks on Fifth Avenue and Pike Street, one of the first stores to unionize in Seattle. 

When Seattle stores started to unionize, Pappin said it showed that issues are systemic enough to infiltrate even the stores closest to corporate headquarters. 

“That sends a really powerful message to the corporate office,” she said. “You can’t pretend that this is just a bunch of people that are not doing their jobs.”

Though the organizing upsurge is real and shows signs of spreading, union membership is still far below levels last recorded in the 1960s, said Barry Eidlin, a professor of sociology at McGill University focused on working-class power in North America, among other topics. 

“These numbers are still not high enough to deem this trend a long-term resurgence, but there is a new energy around labor organizing that is having this transformative effect on workers’ sense of what’s possible,” Eidlin said. “This wasn’t the case even five to 10 years ago so these are the beginnings of what you can almost think of as a contagion effect, which is the hallmark of labor upsurges when it spreads throughout the labor market.” 

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The broadening scope of organizing may have contributed to this shift in sentiment, said economist Jesse Rothstein, a public policy professor at University of California, Berkeley and a former economist at the U.S. Department of Labor. 

“There’s a lot more bottom-up organizing,” he said. “And we’re seeing more activity in places where employers are likely going to be opposing it like, say, Starbucks.”

Last week, a new Gallup poll found 71% of Americans approve of labor unions, the highest rate since 1965 and a significant jump from 2009, when the approval rating for unionizing was 48%.

Many attribute the shift to the economic impacts of COVID-19, recent labor shortages and high inflation.  

“You can only squeeze people so far, and that’s really where we are at, with inflation soaring and the bosses using that to maximize profits, and the massive pressure of the pandemic on top of that,” said Pappin, who has worked at Starbucks for nine years. “People have just been squeezed on every end.”

She pointed to a recent Bloomberg report that showed U.S. corporations’ profits have now soared to the widest margins since 1950. Wages have not kept up, she said. Months before workers at Pappin’s store filed to unionize, frustrations mounted as they dealt with what she said was poor management, a relentless run of COVID-19 infections and the rising cost of living. 

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“People don’t have options left,” she said.

Rothstein puts emphasis on the tight labor market to explain the stirring. A shortage of workers — and a surplus of jobs — gave employees the confidence to stand up to management. 

“Workers knew their employers needed them, and workers felt empowered to make some demands,” he said. 

While the volume of union cases filed is high, the average number of Starbucks employees on each petition for representation is about 26 workers, far below the 2022 average of 60 workers petitions for union recognition, showing what else has changed about this push.  

The largest representation petition filed during the year came from Amazon employees in New York, where 5,500 employees would’ve been included in the bargaining unit had the petition, which was ultimately withdrawn, gone forward. In 2021, nearly 10,000 AT&T employees in Atlanta put forward a case for representation; in 2020, over 15,000 employees in Cleveland unsuccessfully attempted to organize. 

The smaller size of these Starbucks petitions is directly linked to their success over the larger organizing efforts, Eidlin said. 

“It’s counterintuitive to the history of the labor movement, since typically it has been that larger companies with a larger combined workforce had greater success in organizing but it’s working,” Eidlin said

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Pappin added that the pandemic work culture that normalized Zoom meetings and online social networking aided Starbucks organizers.

“Union organizing can be very old-school, even in this century,” she said. “There’s a lot of in-person activities like door knocking that people recommend we do, but the pandemic gave us an opportunity to take out some of these barriers.”

Workers in Seattle did most of their organizing remotely, Pappin said, while coordinating with a Starbucks Workers United union employee in Philadelphia.  

The smaller size of these unions may however prove to be a challenge during contract bargaining and negotiations for real organizing outcomes, Rothstein said. 

Pappin agreed this is the real challenge in Starbucks unionizing efforts. 

“By design these big companies can take a long time with contract bargaining,” she said. “Starbucks hasn’t really meaningfully engaged in the bargaining process in anywhere but three stores out of the over 200 that now have a union.” 

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Meanwhile the threat of store closures in the middle of negotiations looms overhead. Since March, the company has closed 16 stores across the U.S. — including five in Seattle and one in Everett  — citing safety concerns. About 30% of the stores that are closing were unionized, organizing or petitioning to form a union, according to Starbucks Workers United. 

The company has said the changes are in response to crises around “personal safety, racism, lack of access to health care, a growing mental health crisis, rising drug use and more” that play out at Starbucks stores.

Starbucks interim CEO Howard Schultz said in June he doesn’t think a “third party” should come between workers.

Cultural shift 

NLRB records show that retail workers at other large corporations like Safeway and Costco are organizing in unprecedented numbers. 

Eidlin links this to the 2008 recession. “We have this generation of young people that entered this labor market of downward mobility — they did all the right things but ended up in jobs that don’t necessarily use what they went to college for,” he said. “This mismatch of expectations that has stoked a desire like, ‘Well, if we’re gonna be working these jobs, we need to make them more livable.’”

Typically, organizing in the retail sector has been regarded skeptically owing to its high turnover rate and young workforce. “There’s a lot of assumptions which are not wrong — it’s definitely an issue,” Pappin said. “But there are plenty of people like me who are not the norm, who have been working in the industry for 5-10 years.” 

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Many believe younger workers’ desire for societal change is a catalyst for this upswing in the labor movement. 

“We just grew up in this world that was on fire, it’s just this horrific mess and the more you learn, the more you know how much wrong there is and as an individual, I feel powerless,” Papplin said. “When I started organizing, it was the first time in my life I felt like there was something wrong with the world that I could actually take action and change, and I think a lot of young people feel that way.”

And when companies portray themselves as progressive, workers are further driven to unionize, Eidlin said. 

“Starbucks, REI, Trader Joe’s, even the Apple store and Amazon to some extent — these are not the steel barons of yore blatantly driven by profit,” Eidlin said. “These companies try to portray themselves as leaders trying to create a better world somehow.”

But how inclusive is this call for workers rights? The labor movement has a dual legacy — some unions push anti-racism and gender equity, others exclude Black workers, women and immigrants from higher-skilled and higher-paid jobs. 

“The thing that is both notable and exciting about the organizing that’s happening now is the degree to which it is showcasing the reality of today’s working class,” said Eidlin. “The tendency in the U.S. is to equate the working class with white men but this is completely at odds with the actual data and who you actually see working in the Starbucks shops, the Amazon warehouses and hospitals.”

Pappin believes this is why the labor movement needs to be infused with the ideas of younger workers. 

“The labor movement has sort of stagnated in the last several decades —  organizing has declined and union membership has dropped and I think that has created these very stagnant power structures,” she said. “The labor movement knows it needs this injection of fresh energy and ideas and I’m hopeful to see it so enthusiastically embraced.”