The successful effort of workers at the Starbucks on the corner of Broadway and East Denny Way to form a union may be just an isolated event, but it also could be a harbinger of things to come.
After a golden era for unions in the middle of the 20th century — the gold being improved wages for millions of workers that lifted them into America’s middle class — the number of people represented by unions dwindled dramatically in recent decades. One reason for that decline was attributable to the disappearance of so many of the industrial jobs that were the most heavily unionized.
Today, there is an uptick in formation of unions that is happening in a different sector — service workers. The people in those jobs — from Starbucks baristas to hotel maids — are among the most economically insecure. Many are young, many are immigrants or people of color. They include men and women without high school degrees, as well as college grads who cannot find work matching their field of study. They are more transient, more likely to be working part time and certainly unable to pay for their own health care.
For many employers, these lesser-skilled workers have been easily replaceable. They had no impetus to offer better pay, better hours and extra benefits to workers with very little leverage. However, the coronavirus pandemic may have changed things.
Over the last two disrupted years, many people have dropped out of the workforce or have reassessed what demands and indignities they will tolerate in jobs that do not pay them a living wage. At least for now, it is tougher for employers to find enough people to do the unglamorous, unfulfilling and poorly rewarded work that undergirds our entire economy.
At the Starbucks on Broadway, only 13 employees were eligible for the union vote, so this was not a major event in the great scheme of things. However, folks at six other Starbucks locations in the city are working to form unions. If this is happening at a company where employees are treated comparatively well, what may yet come in the less enlightened corners of the economy?
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