This is an audio transcript of the Behind the Money podcast episode: The next hurdle for unions in the US

Michela Tindera
During Casey Moore’s time working as a barista at a Starbucks in Buffalo, New York, she says that her Sunday shifts were often the hardest, but in her mind, there’s one shift in particular that stands out.

Casey Moore
One of the registers broke down for some reason. So you had someone running back and forth between the front and the back, just running with people’s credit cards, running with their phones to scan the app. It was chaos. And none of us could, could take a break. It was, it was just, it was a mess. And I think that was the first time I cried at work because it was just so overwhelming. And I think I was sitting in the back room trying to get myself to go back on the floor. And I was like, this is coffee at the end of the day, and why is this causing so much stress? And I was just sitting back there like, thinking like, I’m working my ass off to make this happen, to make people’s days, and yet I don’t get paid enough for this, you know, I just don’t.

Michela Tindera
Casey says that experiences like this made her realise something. She realised that what her store needed was a union.

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Michela Tindera
She got involved with a group called Starbucks Workers United, and it’s a realisation that’s not unique to her.

Casey Moore
It’s honestly one of the most difficult jobs that I’ve ever had in the service industry. I’ve been a waitress and a bartender, and nothing compares to the pace and the intensity of being a Starbucks barista.

Michela Tindera
Over the last year, more than 300 Starbucks stores in the US have filed for union elections, including Casey’s store in Buffalo. It’s part of a growing trend of name brand, private sector companies filing to form unions. And it kicked off a movement that spread to other major companies in the US.

(People cheering in the background).

News report
Workers at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island will unionise, a first in the US in Amazon’s 27 years.

News report
For the first time ever, a Colorado Trader Joe’s is looking to form a union.

News report
Employees at multiple US Apple stores are pushing to unionise.

Michela Tindera
But it hasn’t been easy, and now workers at many of these unions are running up against a classic problem in unionisation movements in the US, actually getting these companies to come to the bargaining table to hash out a contract. And so after months and months spent organising, will the Starbucks unions be able to get their management to come to the bargaining table? Or, will they, and unions fighting for recognition at other companies like Amazon, end up stuck as unions only in name but without a contract to hold their employers accountable.

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I’m Michela Tindera from the Financial Times. On this week’s episode of Behind the Money, how workers at Starbucks and other private sector companies are facing their next challenge in the move to unionise their workplaces.

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Taylor Nicole Rogers is the FT’s labour and equality correspondent, and she’s been covering the labour movement at Starbucks since the first store in Buffalo, New York, voted to form a union in December of last year. She says that according to the baristas she’s spoken to, the unionisation movement really got started because of the changes that the company began to go through during the pandemic.

Taylor Nicole Rogers
So because people couldn’t go to Starbucks and sit around and drink coffee and work on their computers while everything was locked down, people started placing more delivery orders, and they started doing more mobile orders. And because you’re ordering on an app instead of a phone, you can make those drinks a lot more complicated. And baristas say it just made their jobs so much more difficult. There were complaints about the equipment breaking down and being outdated. Complaints about staffing shortages that have been common across the industry and also complaints about it being really difficult to schedule time off because all the cafés were so busy all the time.

Michela Tindera
So Taylor, this movement really got its start in New York last year. What happened next?

Taylor Nicole Rogers
Well, immediately after the first three stores in Buffalo held their own elections, more and more cafés followed suit. Some of those stores voted that they didn’t want to unionise. Some stores are still waiting on their election results. But it’s been huge, like, there’s no, there’s really no precedent for this type of union action to spread across the country this quickly.

Michela Tindera
So what makes this new movement so different compared to other unions in the US?

Taylor Nicole Rogers
Starbucks Workers United is the union that was founded by those first workers that organised in Buffalo last year, and since then they’ve added a ton of other stores to their union. But each store had its own separate union under the umbrella of Starbucks Workers United. So it’s really a collective of more than 200 small unions that might have 20 to 40 members each.

Michela Tindera
And it’s not just how they’re structured that makes them different. Right?

Taylor Nicole Rogers
This is a union that’s really, really young. There are a lot of people of colour, a lot of LGBTQ people, and those are people that have traditionally not been as engaged with unions. I mean, there’s a long history of black Americans being in unions, but not so much for other demographics. And that’s part of what has made this so special, is because the union movement has been trying forever to engage these populations and they haven’t been able to. I think the crux of it is that fast food in particular has been an industry that the US labour movement has been working to organise for decades with very, very minimal success. And the fact that this group of baristas who had had no labour experience and very, very minimal help from professionals were able to do it, really shocked everyone and ultimately gave a lot of energy to a labour movement that had been really struggling to stay alive, essentially.

Michela Tindera
So not that many people in the US are actually part of unions. You reported that just under 13 per cent of US workers are members of a trade union. So a lot of people might not actually understand what it takes to put together a union and really get one started. Can you explain what the process is to actually set one up at a company here?

Taylor Nicole Rogers
Forming a union in the US is a really complex and difficult process. You have to collect signatures, file that so signatures in a petition to something called the National Labour Relations Board, which is a federal agency. That agency will then conducts an election, where you all have to vote on if you want this union to represent you are not. Once, if that’s approved, then you have a union and then you get to go to the bargaining table to negotiate with your employer. But the reason so many people are interested in joining unions is because it gives them the opportunity to negotiate over things like their pay, their healthcare benefits, their working hours, their scheduling, and pretty much anything they want to in the workplace. The draw of unions is that it gives you a vehicle to have those conversations with your employer and maybe more leverage than you would have if you, than if you, as just one person, went up to your boss and said, like, hey, I want a huge raise.

Michela Tindera
And how is Starbucks, the corporation, reacted to all of this?

Taylor Nicole Rogers
So Howard Schultz, who is just now wrapping up his third tenure as chief executive, has made it very clear that he does not want the union and that the union is not welcome at Starbucks. What Schultz and a lot of other CEOs say is that unions come in between workers and managers and just make it more difficult to run day-to-day operations because they have to involve this third party. But what a lot of experts say is that if a union will force an employer to pay higher wages, to respect certain standards in regards to working conditions, and things like that. So essentially, it will just make Schultz’s job as the chief executive of the company a lot harder because he can’t just make unilateral decisions. He has to involve a third party that has professional organisers that are going to, you know, fight back for the union’s interests.

Michela Tindera
So what’s happening now with all of these new Starbucks union sort of formed over the last year or so.

Taylor Nicole Rogers
The problem that a lot of Starbucks baristas are running up against now is that even if you have this collective voice, this organisation, to negotiate with your employer, your employer still has to be willing to come to the table, right? And Starbucks has not done that on a large scale yet. But in a day-to-day matter, just having a union and being a union member does not really change anything unless you’re able to successfully negotiate with your employer. That’s the big caveat. And that’s kind of where a lot of the big unions that we’ve seen come out in the past few years, like at Trader Joe’s and at Amazon, are stuck right now.

Michela Tindera
And they’re all trying to set up this thing called a collective bargaining agreement. Can you just explain exactly what that is?

Taylor Nicole Rogers
A collective bargaining agreement is essentially a contract that a group of workers represented by a union and the management of their employer signed that agrees on what the working conditions are going to be. The reason that it’s so important to get one is that without it, the union essentially has no control over what’s happening at work. Most of the time, it takes more than a year to negotiate one. Because you have to go through every single thing that happens in a workplace. How much vacation time? Who gets the vacation time? What’s the paid sick leave? What’s the parental leave? And the list goes on and on and on. And often workers and employers have a really different conceptions of what’s appropriate. But everyone says that that’s the most important part of starting a union, is getting that first agreement, because once you sign that first agreement, it’s really, really hard to create drastic changes in the working conditions after that.

Michela Tindera
So how are the Starbucks union organisers navigating all this?

Taylor Nicole Rogers
They told me that while they absolutely want to unionise as many stores as they can at that, the goal in the immediate future is to engage the company over some of these contract negotiations. The number of stores that have been filing for petitions has actually been trending downwards for a couple of months now, and they’ve really shifted their focus to trying to get Starbucks to the negotiating table so that they can get, you know, wage gains and better benefits and new equipment, all those things that they unionised for because I think they’re starting to realise that as great as it is to be a union, it’s hard to keep growing if you’re not creating change for your workers.

Michela Tindera
Have they made any progress on this?

Taylor Nicole Rogers
In my opinion, the biggest success has been after a few stores closed in Massachusetts and in Washington State, the union was able to negotiate over what happened to those workers who were losing their jobs. They were able to give them, to get the company to agree to give them the option to move to a different store.

Michela Tindera
But no store has actually been able to iron out a contract yet. So why is it so tough for new unions to get companies to come to the bargaining table?

Taylor Nicole Rogers
The consensus is that the US has some of the weaker labour laws among developed democracies because we don’t have a lot of the same provisions that empower unions that other countries have. For example, there are countries in Europe that allow unions to take a seat on the company’s board and help determine the direction of the company. Obviously, if the Starbucks union had a seat on the company’s board, I’m sure they would have a much better chance of compelling them to come to the negotiating table. Labour scholars tell me that the reason it’s so hard to get these contracts signed is because the government has very, very few tools to force employers to negotiate. The legal standard that’s currently in place is simply that employers have to negotiate in good faith. But obviously, it’s really hard to determine in a court of law whether someone’s doing something in good faith or not.

Michela Tindera
Is there anything happening that might change this?

Taylor Nicole Rogers
There are proposals in Congress that have been on the floor for a while about how to strengthen US labour laws. But with Congress looking the way it does and the midterms coming up, nobody’s really optimistic. One other important thing to talk about is that the National Labor Relations Board is under Democratic leadership at the moment because we have a Democratic White House, right? And they have been able to enforce labour laws more strictly than the previous board under the Trump administration. So that has also given these workers more leverage against the company, knowing that, OK, if you break the law, this federal agency will actually sue you and try to compel you to fix it. But that process is slow and hard.

Michela Tindera
So what can workers do now to change their prospects and get companies to listen?

Taylor Nicole Rogers
They are going on strikes. They’ve done a ton of smaller one to three-day or even a week-long strikes to try to get the company to co-operate. Labour experts say that’s kind of the best thing that they can do. It’s the strongest tool that they have is to shut down a store for a few days and picket outside and tell the company that we’re not going to come back to work unless you negotiate with us. The problem is, is that Starbucks has the legal ability to just find other workers from elsewhere and bring them in and still operate the store. Obviously, it’s a hassle for them, but how effective the strikes are is still up for debate.

Michela Tindera
So last week Starbucks held this investor meeting, and its purpose was to hail a “new era of growth”. So have the union efforts had any impact on the company’s financial performance?

Taylor Nicole Rogers
It seems like the union actually isn’t having a financial impact on them at all, especially because they haven’t yet been forced to, you know, pay unionised workers more or anything like that. But the company is having a difficult time trying to figure out what it’s going to look like in the next few years after the challenges it’s been through during the pandemic. So Schultz, the outgoing CEO, has said that he’s going to spend hundreds of millions of dollars updating stores, providing new equipment, providing training and all of those things to help the company reset. You could interpret some of those investments as potentially also being designed to help keep the union from growing. But that’s not what Schultz says.

Michela Tindera
And how did members of the union receive that?

Taylor Nicole Rogers
The reception of these improvements from the workforce is probably not been as Howard Schultz intended. It seems like the members of the union are still saying that Starbucks is not doing enough for them. What they really want is structural change and a say in how the company moves forward.

Michela Tindera
What do you think it would mean for the wider union movement if one of the Starbucks unions could get a contract put together in the near future?

Taylor Nicole Rogers
I think it would just say, like, let’s go ahead and keep doing what they’ve been doing. You know, we’re having this conversation about unions. Lots of other people are talking about unions over the dinner table for the first time. We have a president who’s really into organised labour. And more Americans are telling pollsters that they like the idea of being in a union than ever before. But that hasn’t translated to more power for the unions, and they’re trying to figure out why. So some of the answers that people have floated around is maybe we need to be more politically engaged like the Starbucks union. That union leans left and they, you know, publish memes about Donald Trump and things like that, things that older, more established unions would never do because they’re worried about isolating certain members of the workforce. Some people have said, maybe we need to engage young people more. Maybe that’s the answer. So a lot of union leaders are looking to Starbucks to see if they can figure out what the secret sauce is, especially if it works out.

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Michela Tindera
Well, Taylor, thanks so much for taking the time to come on the show.

Taylor Nicole Rogers
Thanks for having me.

Michela Tindera
So for Casey Moore back in Buffalo, her experience with Starbucks over the last year has allowed her to discover a new path for her own career. She started working with the larger Starbucks Workers United organisation on their communications committee. And . . .

Casey Moore
I think I’ve fallen in love with the work and everything that goes into organising. I think it’s kind of interesting because I’ve volunteered on political campaigns before, and don’t get me wrong, political campaigns are incredibly important. But, you know, like at the end of the election, you elect someone and then they have to go into office and do what they say that they’re going to do. And you can kind of only hope that they’re actually going to follow through. With a union, you’re building power for your entire workplace, for all the workers there. And it’s just an incredibly cool thing to be a part of because you’re a part of something that is enacting change. And so I absolutely see myself staying in this work in some capacity. And whether that’s working in the labour movement or organising my next workplace or whatever that means, I’m really excited that I found this passion and this group of people.

Michela Tindera
But Casey is still waiting for her store’s union election, which took place in May to be certified by the NLRB. Both Starbucks and her store’s union are challenging some of the ballots. So for now, things are sort of stuck in limbo.

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Behind the Money is hosted by me, Michela Tindera. This episode was edited by John Buckley. Topher Forhecz is our executive producer. Sound design and mixing by Sam Giovinco and Breen Turner. Special thanks to Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson. Cheryl Brumley is the global head of audio. Thanks for listening. See you next week.

This transcript has been automatically generated. If by any chance there is an error please send the details for a correction to: typo@ft.com. We will do our best to make the amendment as soon as possible.

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