After decades of declining union membership, organized labor may be on the verge of a resurgence in the United States. Employees seeking better working conditions and higher pay have recently organized unions at Starbucks, Amazon, Apple and elsewhere. Candidates for this year’s union elections are set to reach their highest level in a decade. I asked Noam Scheiber, who covers workers and labor issues for The Times, what’s behind the latest wave of union activity.
Ian: You recently Profile Jaz Brisack, a Rhodes Scholar and barista who helped organize a union at a Starbucks in Buffalo, the first at a company-owned store in decades. Why did she want to work there?
Noam : The Jaz comes from a tradition. We saw it during the Depression; people with radical policies taking jobs with the explicit intention of organizing workers. The term for this is “salting”, like seasoning. The practice has had limited success in recent decades, but we are seeing a wider revival, and Jaz is one of them. 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 to Oxford University and once pressed the University of Mississippi chancellor — at a reception honoring Jaz — 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 came to college she was “incredibly socially awkward,” in part because she was homeschooled. Still, she would somehow be willing to do things that required interacting with strangers in order to further the cause, such as handing out flyers to promote a union campaign at a nearby Nissan plant.
Employees of nearly 200 other Starbucks have organized from the Jaz store unionized in december. Did they follow his example?
After their union’s victory, Jaz and the other organizers received demands from Starbucks workers across the country. They would make Zoom calls and tell them how to get started. I was with Buffalo organizers the day the union won at a Starbucks in Mesa, Ariz., the first outside of Buffalo during the campaign. A Jaz store employee, Michelle Eisen, had been in close contact with Mesa workers. I went to dinner with her and some of the other Buffalo organizers that night, and they were giddy. They were proud of what they had set in motion.
So these things are spreading. Every time I cover a labor campaign these days, I ask, “Have you been paying attention to what’s going on at Starbucks?” At Amazon? Invariably, the answer is not simply yes, but “we were inspired by it, we were motivated by it, it showed us that it could be done”. This was the case when I interviewed employees of Trader Joe and Apple. And, historically, unionization has tended to happen in spurts.
University graduates seem to be driving this push.
A key part of the story is the radicalization of the college-educated worker. You have experienced a meteoric recovery from the Great Recession followed by the pandemic. Having a college education does not 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 this been an obstacle to the unionization of workers without a diploma?
College-educated workers often get things done, but they’re pretty good at bringing a diverse group together. I spoke to Brima Sylla, a Liberian immigrant who helped organize his colleagues at the Staten Island Amazon factory. He has a doctorate. public policy and speaks several languages. He helped enroll hundreds of people, many of them African or Asian immigrants. Another organizer was Pasquale Cioffi. He’s a former stevedore and has a more traditional working-class background. He was good at talking to non-academics and Trump supporters. Having a coalition of Brima and Pat helped the union win.
You compared today’s organization to that of the 1930s. What parallels do you see?
The Great Depression was obviously a traumatic time. The financial system was collapsing. The economy was collapsing. Unemployment was 25%. But in 1936 things were much better, though still not great. This has also been true during the pandemic. Many people lost their jobs in 2020, but in 2021 the labor market was tight and workers felt empowered. That one-two punch—one traumatic event, then things get better—is a recipe for successful organizing.
Your Jaz profile reads differently than many Times stories. You speak for yourself – like her, you were a Rhodes Scholar and interviewed your former classmates, contrasting their pro-business view of the late 1990s with her skepticism. Why did you write it like this?
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 felt more honest, authentic, and compelling to own just that.
Learn more about Noam: He joined The Times in 2015 after nearly 15 years at The New Republic and lives near Chicago. After a bad experience involving a late-night cup of coffee, his college comedy magazine, and an 8 a.m. math class, he avoids caffeine.
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