By Brandon Hill
Not only has the COVID pandemic led to an increase in union activity and membership through the unionization of coffee shops and rallies of Greater Boston’s educators, but the movement in 2022 is shaped around a more diverse movement with more diverse causes.
Read the previous story: “An unprecedented surge of unionization in service industries is led by baristas”
In 2022, the labor movement still fights many of the same battles as the labor movements of the past, but it fights some new ones too. Income inequality has always been a core issue of the labor movement but as an increasingly younger and more diverse union membership joins the ranks, they bring support for their heightened concern for social and environmental justice.
“Union jobs are good for everybody, right?” said Nich Jurvaich, assistant professor of labor history and associate director of the University of Massachusetts, Boston Labor Resource Center in an interview. “It closes all the gaps, gender gaps, racial gaps, it doesn’t mean unions are perfect, but unionization is the best way to protect people who are prone to being discriminated against.”
Massachusetts has a bit of a history when it comes to diverse grassroots labor activism. In 1912, the state passed the nation’s first minimum wage law as a result of a massive women-led textile workers’ strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Nicknamed “The Bread and Roses Strike,” textile workers from 51 nationalities managed to come together without the support of a large national union — which were almost entirely made up of white middle-class trade laborers until decades later.
A simple breakdown of the economic conditions that brought on the “Bread and Roses Strike,” and the resulting progressive labor policy, compared to the economic conditions of the late-COVID-era working class of today, puts the severity of the modern movement’s causes in scale.
The Lawrence textile workers were paid 14 cents an hour at the time of the strike and were among the lowest paid workers in the state. Paying an average of $2 to $3 a week for a four-room home meant that most of them would need to work between 57 and 86 hours a month to pay rent. In Boston today, the current minimum wage is $14.25 an hour and the median cost of a four-room apartment is $3,300 a month. A single earner in Boston today would need to work just over 230 hours to afford that.
The younger generations entering the workforce see their looming economic prospects as a reason to organize. Ash O’Neil, a 22-year-old barista and organizer at Boston’s newly unionized Allston Starbucks had this to say in an interview:
“Having grown up living through 9/11, a recession, now COVID, everything that’s going on economically, knowing that I will probably never be able to afford to buy a house, knowing that I just found out I’m probably going to be paying my student loan for the next 20 years. Things like that, you know, they’ve really pissed me off, for lack of a better term. I think that a lot of us are just kind of fed up with all these shitty things being thrown onto us and realizing, you know, a lot of us are getting to this age where we have jobs, and we have a bit more power than we did 5 or 10 years ago. So we’re actually starting to take the reins and say it’s kind of our moment to shine right now.”
The younger generation of freshly unionized service workers is using that power in pursuit of more than just progress on income inequality. Kylah Clay, another barista and organizer at the Allston Starbucks, says part of their expectations for the contract bargaining process will include discovery on rates of pay across the chain’s racial demographics as well as accountability for their environmental impact and practices.
“A union contract doesn’t have to just be about our individual workspace. We can have a much broader impact on our communities through a union contract with something as big as a Goliath like Starbucks,” Clay said. “How can we help workers, not just us, but workers everywhere? So I know something that we think about often with our contracts is how can we hold corporate accountable for global warming and for waste management? How can we hold them accountable for diversity?”
The labor movement has occasionally intersected with the environmental movement in the past, but this is different. Previously, unions would mostly confine their activism and political sway to causes that dealt directly with that particular union’s pay or working conditions. This meant that while one union of factory workers might have pushed to regulate the usage of hazardous workplace chemicals that also happened to be environmentally damaging, another union of coal miners or oil rig workers might have fought against regulations on the fossil fuel industry out of a desire for job security and higher wages.
Brian Obach, author of “Labor and the Environmental Movement,” calls it the “coalition contradiction,” a dance between union leadership and union membership that has stifled unions’ motivation to reach outside their respective industries.
“All these organizations are kind of in this straightjacket where they’ve got to be sure that they’re emphasizing the thing that defines their existence. But in order to really advance their cause, oftentimes, they have to work in coalition with other groups,” Obach said in an interview. “Thus, the coalition contradiction. To be effective, I’ve got to join a coalition. But if I join a coalition, I might not be effective, because I might start losing all my core base.”
Where the modern labor movement of coffee shop chains, retail stores and shipping warehouses seems to skirt the coalition contradiction, for now, is with genuine grassroots organizing. Juravich said that nothing like the Amazon warehouse union victory has happened in the recent history of the labor movement.
“What I think is really exciting about these new organizing drives, is that they really are grassroots, they’re driven by people,” Juravich said. “What we’re seeing is people saying, ‘look, we are in fact organizing ourselves to demand, you know, changes to the conditions of our labor right here right now.”
“It is this sort of grassroots movement among young workers in these new industries, new sectors, growing sectors, important sectors,” Obach said. “We could be seeing some kind of paradigm shift where newly unionizing young people and otherwise nonunionized industries are bringing other values with them and building it right into the union structure.”
Many of the new movement’s members have activism built into the identities that they brought to their workplace and now their union. Starbucks has made an effort to be presented as a progressive company, which has led to its stores being recognized as accepting workspaces for many college-aged members of LGBTQ+ communities.
“I, personally, am queer, and it is cool to go into almost any Starbucks and know that I will find other queer people working there,” said O’Neil, who identifies as nonbinary. “People who are queer are probably more likely to look into unionization and labor rights, because as people who have had our rights still being questioned and attacked, having a safe space at work is very important.”
“Something that we can do with a contract is really force them to abide by the progressive ideals that they’ve laid out for us,” Clay said. “I think that’s why we’re seeing so many marginalized folks lead this and spearhead this, because they know how to best make sure that is held accountable in the contract.”
In a lot of ways, the rise of union membership and activity since the pandemic has been about more than an opportunity to get better wages and working conditions in the short term. It’s an extension of the democratic process meant to make up for the ways in which these workers have seen institutions, whether their employers or their government, fail them over the last few years.
“I think that the surge in unionization is affecting everyone, and I credit the young people in the service industry who said, ‘you promised me,’” said Jessica Wender-Shubow, president of the Brookline Educators Union — who earlier this year went on strike to settle three years of dead-end contract negotiations. “It’s a generational moment where ‘you promised us something, and now you screwed us.’”
Dissatisfaction has been building through the mounting student debt crisis, the expanding wealth gap and the failures of the COVID era, but the modern labor movement continues to adapt as workers face new challenges. At the time of these interviews, whether barista, teacher, labor expert or concerned community member, nearly every subject brought up, unprompted, either the Supreme Court draft decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and/or its final decision reversing the ruling as indicative of ongoing systemic failures.
“We’re going through a really, really difficult time as a country, and watching our rights being taken away from us,” said Willow Montana, a barista and organizer. “I mean, many people in this country already had very few rights to begin with, and knowing that voting and the politicians and people in charge aren’t taking care of us, it just means we have to continue organizing on so many different fronts.”
Montana said that after the overturning of Roe v. Wade, Starbucks sent out a bulletin advertising that they would offer transportation support to employees who might need to travel to receive an abortion. However, stores that had unionized would not receive that benefit or others advertised by the bulletin.
Between rapid changes to the labor market brought on by COVID-19 and growing disillusionment with the ability of employers or the government to respond to the needs of the workers, there is a gap for labor rights to not only catch up to the progress of the past but respond to a labor market that raises entirely new questions.
“What are the rules about your boss contacting you at home at 9:30 at night? Where’s that in the contract? Oh, we don’t have a contract. Because we don’t have a union,” said Obach. “What are the rules about, if I’m working from home, about monitoring? Can they be watching me all the time? These are basic human rights, worker rights issues, and there’s no vehicle through which workers can even begin to have them addressed.”
When labor rights were at their peak, cell phones had yet to exist, email came in a box at your front door, and remote work as expanded by the pandemic was as unthought of as unions trading organizing tips over the internet.
“The changes in the workplace have far outpaced any means by which anything that unions or law has been able to keep up with and address in a reasonable way,” Obach said. “The only way it’ll be reasonably addressed is if we have a voice and the voice, when it comes to workplace issues, are unions.”
The conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic have resulted in many workers finding that voice.
“If we have a voice, we should use it. If we have power, we should use it,” Montana said. “I think that the very foundation of unionizing is about gaining power that you didn’t have before. And that’s the same as the foundation and the base of any social movement.”