After decades of declining union membership, organized labor may be on the verge of a resurgence in the U.S. Employees seeking better working conditions and higher pay have recently organized unions at Starbucks, Amazon, Apple and elsewhere. Applications for union elections this year are on pace to approach their highest level in a decade. I asked Noam Scheiber, who covers workers and labor issues for The Times, what’s behind the latest flurry of union activity.
Ian: You recently profiled Jaz Brisack, a Rhodes scholar and barista who helped organize a union at a Starbucks in Buffalo that was the first at a company-owned store in decades. Why did she want to work there?
Noam: Jaz comes out of a tradition. We saw it during the Depression; people with radical politics taking jobs with the explicit intention of organizing workers. The term for this is “salting,” like the seasoning. The practice has had some limited success in recent decades, but we’re seeing a broader revival of it, and Jaz is part of that. Several salts got jobs at Amazon and helped organize a facility on Staten Island. Academics like Barry Eidlin and Mie Inouye have written extensively about this.
Jaz is very public about her beliefs. She wore a Karl Marx sweatshirt at Oxford University and once pressed the University of Mississippi’s chancellor — during a reception in Jaz’s honor — to remove a Confederate monument from campus.
She’s idealistic and ambitious, but being a social creature hasn’t always come naturally to her. She told me that when she first got to college, she was “incredibly socially awkward,” partly because she’d been home-schooled. Yet she would kind of will herself to do things that required interacting with strangers in order to advance the cause, like passing out fliers to promote a union campaign at a nearby Nissan plant.
Employees at nearly 200 other Starbucks have organized since Jaz’s store unionized in December. Did they follow her lead?
After their union won, Jaz and the other organizers got inquiries from Starbucks workers all over the country. They would go on Zoom calls and tell them how to get started. I was with the Buffalo organizers on the day the union won at a Starbucks in Mesa, Ariz., the first outside Buffalo during the campaign. One worker at Jaz’s store, Michelle Eisen, had been in close contact with the Mesa workers. I went to dinner with her and some of the other Buffalo organizers that night, and they were giddy. They took pride in what they’d set in motion.
So these things catch on. Whenever I cover a union campaign these days, I ask, “Have you been paying attention to what’s going on at Starbucks? At Amazon?” Invariably the answer is not just yes, but, “We were inspired by it, we were motivated by it, it showed us it could be done.” That was the case when I interviewed Trader Joe’s and Apple workers. And, historically, unionization tends to happen in spurts.
College graduates seem to be driving this spurt.
A key part of the story is the radicalization of the college-educated worker. You had a grinding recovery from the Great Recession followed by the pandemic. Being college-educated doesn’t necessarily mean being on board. But whether it’s Starbucks, Amazon or REI, college-educated workers have been heavily involved.
As a group, college-educated Americans are becoming more liberal than working-class Americans. Has that been a barrier to organizing workers without degrees?
College-educated workers often get the ball rolling, but they’re pretty skilled at bringing together a diverse group. I talked to Brima Sylla, a Liberian immigrant who helped organize his co-workers at the Staten Island Amazon facility. He’s got a Ph.D. in public policy and speaks several languages. He helped sign up hundreds of people, a lot of them fellow African or Asian immigrants. Another organizer was Pasquale Cioffi. He’s a former longshoreman and has a more traditional working-class background. He was good at talking to noncollege folks and Trump supporters. Having a coalition that put Brima and Pat together helped the union win.
You compared today’s organizing to the 1930s. What parallels do you see?
The Great Depression was obviously a traumatic moment. The financial system was breaking down. The economy was collapsing. Unemployment was at 25 percent. But by 1936, things were substantially better, though still not great. That’s been true during the pandemic, too. A lot of people lost their jobs in 2020, but by 2021, the labor market was tight, and workers felt empowered. That one-two punch — a traumatic event, and then things improving — is a recipe for successful organizing.
Your profile of Jaz reads differently from many Times stories. You talk about yourself — like her, you were a Rhodes scholar and interviewed your former classmates, contrasting their business-friendly outlook of the late 1990s with her skepticism. Why did you write it that way?
Once I understood Jaz’s background and role in the Starbucks campaign, my first thought was, “Wow, this probably wouldn’t have happened among my cohort of Rhodes scholars.” My reflex was to compare it to my group and marvel at the differences. It seemed more honest, authentic and compelling to just own that.
More about Noam: He joined The Times in 2015 after almost 15 years at The New Republic and lives near Chicago. After a bad experience involving a late-night cup of coffee, his college humor magazine and an 8 a.m. math class, he avoids caffeine.
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