Unions and Worker’s Rights

Brave New Work: The Resurgence of Organized Labor in the U.S.

How corporations destroyed worker power, and how the pandemic might bring it back.

Julio Colby

June 1, 2022

“Why’d you organize a union?” That was the first question posed to the leaders of the successful organizing efforts at the Coolidge Corner and Commonwealth Avenue Starbucks locations. In the basement of a local (unionized) bookstore, baristas from the two stores, joined by loyal customers, friends, and a state representative, ate pizza and watched as the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) counted ballots from each stores’ union elections. After separately filing union paperwork in December of 2021, they had just become the first unionized Starbucks workers in Massachusetts by unanimous vote.

“I had seen what was happening in Buffalo,” responded Kylah Clay, a barista at Commonwealth Ave and a law student at Suffolk Law School. She was referring to the Elmwood Starbucks in Buffalo, New York, which, in spite of a serious union-busting campaign, became the first Starbucks in the country to successfully unionize. “In complete honesty, I didn’t really know anything about unions. But I did know that Starbucks corporate was freaking out for some reason, and when I started educating myself, I realized that Starbucks was doing this to Buffalo partners because they were afraid to lose power to their workers. After that, there was no question [unionizing] was what we wanted to pursue.”

The success at Elmwood had an impact on more than just morale. “I think we were all really inspired by the workers in Buffalo and what they were able to pull off,” said Tyler Daguerre, a barista at Coolidge Corner. Tyler is also a law student at New England Law School, where a fellow student connected him with Brian Murray, a barista from Buffalo who had helped organize the Starbucks Workers United union there. Murray now sits on the organizing committee for the union, which the Massachusetts locations had just voted to join. “It became something where I was just talking to my coworkers at Coolidge, and everybody was really positive and on board.”

In the workers’ own words, solidarity across unionizing stores seems to have played an important role in their own decisions to unionize. “It’s been this huge domino effect that’s had more and more stores joining,” said Ash O’Neill, another barista at the Commonwealth Ave location. “Seeing more stores file is so empowering for us. It kind of makes us want to win more because we want to show up for our partners and say ‘hey, we’re doing this, and we won, so you can too.’” The phenomenon is more than just anecdotal—more than 200 Starbucks locations have begun the unionization process to join Workers United since Elmwood first filed in August 2021, with 24 voting in favor and only 2 voting against.

This domino effect may explain the broader growth of unionizing efforts around the country, with union election petitions up 57% the first half of this fiscal year compared to the same time last year, according to the NLRB. But why now? Unionizing may be contagious, but to understand the source of this recent trend we must turn to a different kind of contagion. “Our generation has seen with the pandemic how screwed over the working class is,” said Maria Suevo, another barista at Coolidge Corner. “We quite literally can’t sustain life the way that it’s going.”

“Our generation has seen with the pandemic how screwed over the working class is. We quite literally can’t sustain life the way that it’s going.”