Workers at a national retail chain REI in SoHo voted to unionize last week. So did tech workers at the New York Times. Baristas at a handful of Starbucks locations around the city are organizing and so are thousands of Amazon warehouse workers who will vote on whether to form a union later this month.

There has been a flurry of high-profile union organizing in New York City in recent months, much of it an outgrowth of two years of a deadly pandemic, where already tenuous work conditions were made even more dire. According to interviews with workers, organizers and labor experts, these campaigns in New York City have been propelled by young Gen Z and millennial organizers. And as the U.S. economy struggles to fill open jobs, workers have a rare upper hand.

Now, labor experts are eagerly watching the latest campaigns, weighing if it might be the start of a wider wave of unionization. Union membership has been on the decline for years, and data from the National Labor Relations Board shows only a modest uptick in the rate of unionized workers in the last year in New York. But labor experts say, historically, these campaigns tend to have a domino effect and are usually propelled in times of economic adversity.

“It's too early to tell yet whether this is a blip or the beginning of a new phase,” said Joshua Freeman, a history professor at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies. “There've been other periods too when time seems to speed up. Instead of one little thing after another, suddenly — these huge bursts of organizing.”

Instead of one little thing after another, suddenly — these huge bursts of organizing.
Joshua Freeman, history professor at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies

In the wake of the vote to unionize at two Buffalo Starbucks locations in December, three more Buffalo locations followed suit and the Workers United union says it’s now filed petitions for 72 Starbucks locations across 21 states — 16 of them in New York.

Among them is the company’s bustling Astor Place outpost in Manhattan. Edwin Palma Solis, a 21-year-old employee and organizer there, said seeing what happened in Buffalo captured his attention.

“I was thinking to myself, ‘I wonder how that would run in my store if we had unionized?’ Initially I didn't have much courage,” he said, adding another colleague brought it up first, making him feel safer about getting involved. “And so from there on, I wanted to help make a change in our store.”

The National Labor Relations Board has cleared the way for an official union election at the Astor Place Starbucks, though the date hasn’t been set. Palma Solis said he wants to push for higher starting salaries and more flexible and predictable scheduling, among other issues.

Edwin Palma Solis is a worker and union organizer at the Astor Place Starbucks.

Boom times for labor unions

Labor experts and historians point to the 1930’s, during the throes of the Great Depression when there was a burst of organizing that brought unions to companies like Ford, General Motors and General Electric, for the first time. Workers then were agitating for better pay, safer conditions and more reasonable hours.

“There was some sense that [the companies] were not going to provide solutions and maybe people had to do it themselves,” CUNY’s Freeman said. “They lost a lot of their credibility and their moral and political standing.”

Public opinion towards business leaders shifted as the economy plummeted, and federal priorities shifted alongside that, Freeman said. The 1935 Wagner Act codified workers rights to organize. Union membership exploded from 3 million workers in the early 1930’s to 12 million a decade and a half later.

Even specific types of direct actions were contagious, Freeman said, pointing to the 1936 sit-down strike at a General Motors factory in Flint, Michigan, where workers locked themselves inside the factory, and refused to leave. GM cut off the factory’s heat during the 16-degree winter and police tried to cut workers' food supply, triggering a riot. In all, workers held the factory hostage for 44 days, until their demands for better wages were met.

“Suddenly workers all across America – in Woolworth stores, auto companies, even in mines, all kinds of places – they’re just sitting down like, ‘I’m gonna do that, too,’” Freeman said. “On a very small scale I think we’re seeing that right now.”

Sitdown strikers in the Fisher body plant factory number three in Flint, Michigan, 1937

Support for unions grows, but membership remains low

Recent Gallup polling has suggested that public support for unions has reached heights not seen in sixty years. Even before the pandemic, workers’ desire to join unions was on the rise, according to a 2017 national poll from the MIT Institute for Work and Employment Research.

Still, that surge in interest and public support hasn’t translated to an increase in union membership. Nationwide unionization rates remain at historic lows, with just 10.3% of employees represented by unions in 2021, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, New York, which has long had some of the highest rates of unionized workers, bucked that stagnancy last year, with a slight uptick in union membership to 22.2% of workers in the state last year, from 22 percent the year prior, according to BLS.

Nationwide and in New York, new filings for union recognition had also been on the decline for several years. In 2015, 359 workplaces across New York requested union recognition, according to NLRB data. In 2021 there were just 153 new shops that did. So far this year, 44 workplaces have requested recognition including workers at Fordham and Barnard Colleges, the American History of Natural History, Brooklyn Children's Museum.

For the National Labor Relations Board to conduct an election, at least 30 percent of employees in the workplace have to submit petitions saying they want a union vote. Some employers choose to voluntarily recognize the union after that step, but if they refuse, the NLRB will set guidelines and then oversee and verify the results of an election. Federal labor law prohibits employers from firing, disciplining, punishing or demoting union organizers, but there are lots of legal ways companies can undermine organizing efforts. They can force employees to attend “captive audience meetings” that criticize the union, they can pass out their own literature re-characterizing union efforts.

Labor advocates blame lax federal labor laws and the bureaucratic red tape workers confront when they try to bring issues to the NLRB, for years of dropping union membership. Even when employers violate the protections for workers — through misinformation campaigns, intimidation and termination — it often takes months to adjudicate those issues before the board, and even then the punishment isn’t much of a deterrent, said Vincent Alvarez, President New York City Central Labor Council. He pointed to the need for federal legislation like the Pro Act, which is aimed at providing workers more protection to organize, though that’s unlikely to get pushed through a gridlocked Congress.

“It's going to continue to be difficult for working people because of the illegal activity that they're facing and the delays and the tactics by an anti-worker industry that has been set up in this country to try to prevent people from joining unions,” said Vincent Alvarez, president of the New York City Central Labor Council.

While the laws may not be on their side, the tight labor market certainly is, Alvarez said.

“Workers are exercising new leverage as employers compete for all labor right now,” Alvarez said. “This is leading to higher wages and opportunities for better jobs for workers, and that's good for our economy.”

Organizers face more than just legal hurdles. At the Astor Place Starbucks on a recent afternoon, a woman named Felicia working behind the counter, who declined to give her last name because she wasn’t authorized to speak for the company, said she had no interest in her colleagues’ efforts to unionize. She said her own history with unions has been disappointing.

“I’m sorry, they’re liars,” she said. She described having been represented by a New Jersey union while she was a commercial driver for 18 years. She said she didn’t feel like it gave her support when she needed it. “They never represent me. Whenever you call them they’re never available for you. It’s a scam.”

The pushback

Beyond winning a battle for hearts and minds, the latest crop of organizers in New York said they have faced a firestorm of anti-union tactics. Workers at Amazon and REI interviewed by Gothamist say they’ve been pulled into captive audience meetings where management representatives dissuaded them from unionizing — and they’ve faced managers bad-mouthing their efforts and spreading misinformation about their would-be unions.

Amazon’s tactics have been particularly aggressive, according to workers’ claims filed with the NLRB and a litany of news reports. Attorneys have filed dozens of labor charges with the National Labor Relations Board, but so far the company's tactics haven’t wavered. Multiple union organizers have been fired, several have been repeatedly arrested while they’re talking to workers on the sprawling Staten Island campus, and organizers have received repeated performance write-ups, though they say their work quality hasn’t changed. Amazon officials have repeatedly denied any wrong-doing.

In some cases, organizers say they’re hopeful the company’s tactics will backfire.

“When they fired me, I might've been the catalyst for the Amazon labor movement,” said Chris Smalls, president of the Amazon Labor Union. Smalls was fired in March 2020 on the same day he staged a walkout in protest of COVID-19 safety concerns.

Chris Smalls was fired from Amazon shortly after a walkout that he helped organize.

He said he’s seeing the domino effect of organizing even in his time as an organizer.

“It’s definitely crossed over into other industries. Workers are now realizing their value. We were deemed as essential workers. That means that we're a necessity. And if we're a necessity, we need to be treated like that,” he said.

Amazon organizers are campaigning on higher starting wages, longer breaks and making sure workers can keep their phones while they’re on the warehouse floor, among other workplace concerns.

Smalls, like many other New York City organizers Gothamist spoke to, said the fervor this year dates back to a larger context of protest that bubbled over in 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic shut the world down in a matter of weeks. As workers returned to their jobs amid a still-raging pandemic, thousands of people were marching in the streets following the May 2020 murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.

As protests fizzled out, some of the workers who spoke to Gothamist said they started looking for ways to make changes in their daily lives. At the same time, they faced new workplace hazards as COVID-19 continued to spread.

“There has been this itch like, ‘I need to do something,’” said 29-year-old Claire Chang, an organizer at REI’s SoHo store which voted overwhelmingly to unionize last week. “Seeing the conditions of the world and my own working conditions and my experience too, with my coworkers, and seeing what they're going through. It was a no-brainer.”

Like so many other trends, the pandemic has kind of amplified it and made it stronger
Ruth Milkman, sociology of labor professor at CUNY

‘The Union Bug’

For the most part, the organizers leading the latest charge in New York City are young; millennials or Gen Z, according to numerous interviews conducted by Gothamist. Many of them are college educated and are saddled with student debt. Ruth Milkman, sociology of labor professor at CUNY, sees a thread from the current wave of labor organizing to social movements of the past decade such as Occupy Wall Street, Me Too on college campuses, Black Lives Matter marches and the Dreamers’ movement. Now that same momentum is coalescing around the workplace.

“Young college educated workers have kind of gotten the union bug. This was already beginning before the pandemic, but like so many other trends, the pandemic has kind of amplified it and made it stronger,” she said. “I just wish I had a crystal ball. It's a pretty interesting situation.”

Though many of the organizers are young, some older workers have been welcomed into the fold. Joanne Guralnick, 68, has worked at REI for a decade and said she’d been inspired by the solidarity she’d experienced with her colleagues during her efforts organizing her workplace. After close to a decade at the company, she was making $20.09 an hour. A raise was an essential piece of what she hoped to address through unionization.

“I have felt more connected to my co-workers in this last year that I've been involved in the union drive than I have in the previous nine years,” she said. “I'm just amazed that most of the people are just so young and I just have hope for the future.”