As the pandemic ratcheted up pressure on Seattle front-line workers, some turned to their unions while others, at employers like Starbucks and Amazon, launched campaigns to form their own.

In a Friday visit to Seattle, U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh acknowledged that too often those unionizing employees face roadblocks put up by employers meant to stop them from organizing.

As labor secretary, Walsh, a former union member and leader, can’t tell workers they should organize — but he can ensure they have the chance to decide, he said Friday.

“The current laws are outdated. They give employers too much power to interfere with workers, organizing elections and contract negotiations,” Walsh said. Workers “should be able to try and join the union without interference.” 

In Seattle, watching as Starbucks and Amazon have been accused of using anti-union tactics to stop employees from organizing hasn’t discouraged workers. It’s actually done the opposite, said Tricia Schroeder, executive vice president of a local chapter of the Service Employees International Union.

SEIU Local 925 filed a petition Thursday with the National Labor Relations Board to start a union drive for workers from Washington Connections Academy, a Tumwater-based network of online schools. Those workers watched as the NLRB pushed back against Amazon and Starbucks and recognized similar practices at their own work site, Schroeder said.

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“I think workers feel confident to reach out right now,” she said. “It’s bringing to light the kinds of tactics that employers have used. … They’re just using the same playbook over and over again to intimidate workers. And now we know what it is.” 

Representatives from SEIU were among the labor groups that met Friday with Walsh, Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Pramila Jayapal to talk unions, workforce development and Seattle. The federal officials visited a Machinists union hall in South Park to push support for Murray’s PRO Act, or the Protecting the Right to Organize Act. 

The legislation, which passed the House and is currently in the Senate, would expand labor protections for employees’ rights to organize and collectively bargain. The law would enable employees to vote in a union election by phone or online, and prohibit employers from coercing workers to attend meetings designed to discourage union membership. It would also ban agreements that require the employee to waive their right to pursue or join class-action litigation.

“Unions can actually give workers a very powerful voice … to demand their share of this economic growth, demand better wages and working conditions that allow them to take care of their own families, and for those businesses to be able to grow and help us be a better country,” Murray said Friday to the group that included nurses, machinists, construction workers, educators and grocery store workers. “So it is our job to protect every single worker’s right.” 

Washington’s three Republican representatives voted against the PRO ACT, while the state’s seven Democratic lawmakers voted in support.

Critics of the bill argue it would remove protections for workers who want to hold a job without paying union dues. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce argues it could undermine worker rights and disrupt the economy. The legislation would “funnel money to unions by giving them legal powers no other group has,” Paul Guppy, vice president for the Washington Policy Center, said in a February 2020 statement. 

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The Building Industry Association of Washington, based in Tumwater, said in its own statement opposing the PRO Act that it “contains many provisions harmful to labor-management relations,” and that some of its provisions could stifle entrepreneurship and competition in the homebuilding industry.

While pushing for passage of the PRO Act, Murray, D-Wash., is also focused on strengthening the NLRB, another part of her effort to hold employers accountable for what she views as anti-union tactics. 

The labor board had its “teeth taken away from it” over the last several years, she said. “We’re working really hard now to make sure the NLRB has the resources, the people in place to make sure that people don’t violate the law.”

Democrats are also working to discourage anti-union tactics by hitting a company’s bottom line. The House included a provision in the Build Back Better Act that increased the fine for employers who violate labor laws.

“Investing in apprenticeship programs, workforce development programs, those are also really important ways to build our unionized sector,” said Jayapal, D-Seattle. “But at the end of the day, we have to have much more aggressive ability for employers to feel some pain if they do take on the practices they’ve taken on.”

In Seattle, workers at a Capitol Hill Starbucks voted Tuesday to unionize. Across the country, workers at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island are casting votes in a union election that could make theirs the first unionized Amazon facility in the United States

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Microsoft is facing a union drive at Activision Blizzard, the gaming company it recently acquired. And a group of Google contractors in Kansas City, Missouri, won a union election Friday, marking the first bargaining unit at parent company Alphabet, according to the Communications Workers of America, which helped lead the union drive.

For workers who have already organized, the union helped push back on a grocery chain owner that told them not to wear masks at the beginning of the pandemic, citing concerns it would scare customers away, said Joe Mizrahi, secretary-treasurer for the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 3000. 

At Harborview Medical Center, unions pushed at the beginning of the pandemic to get the right personal protective equipment members needed to keep doing their job, said Menelabish Tale, a member of SEIU 1199NW.

“Day after day we had to fight,” she said. But it felt like she was told “go and fight but we’re not going to give you the right equipment.”

For those who aren’t yet unionized, the motivation to organize will likely continue, PRO Act or not, said Schroeder from SEIU.

“I think workers have had enough,” she said. “And they’re going to keep standing up and we’ll just figure out new ways” to help.