In a demonstration of how dissatisfied lower-wage workers are turning toward unions, workers at Verizon retail stores in Everett and Lynnwood voted Friday to unionize while employees at two Seattle Starbucks stores walked off the job.
In Snohomish County, the Verizon workers — a dozen of them — voted overwhelmingly to form a union, one of a handful at the company’s retail stores. Those who backed the union described the effort as a small part of a labor wave rising in the service industry as the pandemic fades.
With 11 ballots cast in favor of a union and one against, the Verizon workers will join other telecommunications and customer service employees as members of the Communications Workers of America union, including workers at three other Verizon stores in New York City.
Tailgating to celebrate the win Friday, several Verizon workers said they wanted to push back against understaffing, short breaks and lunches, and last-minute changes to their work location each shift, as well as pay rates that haven’t kept up with the increased cost of living.
“Verizon doesn’t negotiate with us individually. Unless we come together collectively and make our demands known we’ll just keep losing ground,” said Austin Hitch, a specialist at Verizon who has worked at the New York-based company for nine years.
“The number one thing we want today is just a floor. Verizon can’t make things worse,” Hitch continued. “They can’t just decide tomorrow to take away our 401(k). They can’t decide tomorrow we’re all part-time workers. We stopped the downward trajectory, and now we’re going to fight back for the upward trajectory.”
Verizon did not respond to requests for comment.
In Seattle’s Eastlake neighborhood, about two dozen protesters gathered outside of Starbucks Friday, chanting and waving signs in support of unionization.
The one-day strike in Eastlake and three-day work stoppage downtown were meant to pressure Seattle-based Starbucks to meet the workers’ demands. Those include calls as broad as getting management respect for employee mental health and as specific as replacing an alarm system.
The protest and unionization efforts were fueled by other recent labor efforts — such as a vote to unionize by Amazon workers at a New York warehouse — protestors said Friday. But another factor was “all of the union-busting activity that’s been going on and the threats of firing us” added Katy Morrison, 26, a shift supervisor at the Eastlake Starbucks.
Several protesters said store managers had responded after workers filed for union status with tactics intended to punish workers and discourage the unionization effort. That included writing up union-supporting workers for being late, instead of giving a verbal warning as managers had typically done before the union application, and refusing to give union-supporting workers schedule flexibility.
Store managers are “suddenly changing people’s hours in ways they … know don’t work for the partners and basically forcing people out — people that they know are part of the organizing,” Morrison said.
Several protesters said the company uses such tactics in the hopes of wearing down unionization efforts.
“They know how much they pay us; they know we can’t afford to go on strike for a month,” Morrison said. “I think they’re kind of banking on the fact that we are all tired and … don’t have the money to be as vocal as we could be.”
Reggie Borges, a spokesperson for Starbucks, said any claims that the company was firing or retaliating against workers for union activity were “not rooted in fact.” But the company does have “standards,” he said, and “an individual’s interest in a union or organizing does not exempt them from following our policies and procedures.”
In Everett, Verizon workers say they’ve also faced what they see as anti-union tactics from management for years, stemming from a 2014 union drive in Brooklyn. That union campaign was successful and sparked anti-union efforts at the company, including company-led training on what to do if a colleague approaches with a union card, according to the organizers in Washington.
Natalia D’aigle, a retail specialist at the Verizon store in Everett, said the company would take workers individually into meetings to discourage them from unionizing.
In one meeting, she mentioned that she was planning to move into an apartment with her partner for the first time. The next meeting, a human resources representative said the union would force a strike, causing D’aigle to miss out on paychecks and be late on rent.
“They would get to know you and then they would use it against you,” D’aigle said.
Brandon Carter, an eight-year Verizon employee, was let go a week after the workers announced their intent to unionize. During his time at the company, Carter said he watched as workers got less say in decisions at the company, less control over their schedule and worse work-life balance.
Employees at the Everett and Lynnwood Verizon stores split their time between the two. Carter said the company won’t let employees swap shifts to work at the stores that are most convenient for them. He recalled a time when a colleague’s car broke down before a scheduled shift; the coworker could walk to one store but was scheduled to work at the other and had to pay for an Uber ride, Carter said.
D’aigle said she is sometimes told just 15 minutes before a shift that she is working at a different location than she had originally been assigned.
“We don’t want normal,” D’aigle said. “I think management has an idea that that’s what’s going to happen, they’re going to get their old team back. We want it to be a little uncomfortable for them because that’s where you get real change.”
At the tailgate Friday, Carissa Hahn, an AT&T mobility employee and executive vice president of CWA Local 37083 in Bothell, said having workers from a competing telecommunications company will help her and her coworkers at AT&T.
“A rising tide lifts all boats,” Hahn said. “We’re a family now, and the larger the family is, the stronger it is.”
Starbucks organizers said their efforts were also gaining momentum thanks in part to broad community support.
Starbucks workers protesting at the Eastlake location were bolstered by members of the community and from Socialist Alternative, a group affiliated with Seattle city Councilmember Kshama Sawant, Morrison said.
A steady parade of passing cars on Eastlake honked in support. At one point, a concrete mixer truck from Glacier Northwest, whose drivers just ended a monthslong strike, passed by and blasted his horn.
That kind of support matters, said Starbucks barista Elizabeth Hall. She said she knows she and her co-workers could “all just lose our jobs immediately” for their efforts. But the encouragement from the community, coupled with the unionization successes at other Starbucks locations and at places like Amazon, tells her unionization is slowly working its way into mainstream debate.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Hall said. “I’m inspired that we’re talking about it more, at the very least.”
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