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Thursday, February 29, 2024
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Unionization, explained: How workers across industries unite for better working conditions

Employees are increasingly battling for better working conditions and benefits despite corporate resistance, as demonstrated by Madison’s own Starbucks on State Street.

Throughout 2023, unions were at the forefront of conversational buzz in Madison, with several workplaces in the city demanding better working conditions over the last two years. 

Unions provide workers a place to make decisions about their work conditions and bring “economic justice to the workplace and social justice to the nation,” according to the Union Plus organization. 

But how does a union form? Here are five basic steps many unions follow:

Step 1: Calling for change

Workers at the State Street Starbucks in Madison voted in favor of unionizing in June with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), with 20 of the branch’s 22 voters in favor of the decision. 

The branch’s discussions about organizing a union turned to action after receiving a warning of “corrective action” from Starbucks corporate officials within two weeks of an employee’s public statement in support of unionizing, according to Matthew Cartwright, a shift supervisor and union organizer at the Starbucks. 

“What they ended up doing was just kind of making everyone very upset and angry, and rightfully so,” Cartwright said. “People weren’t being treated well. At the same time, we’re seeing labor cuts, less workers on the floor.” 

State Street Starbucks’ employees’ decision to organize a union in partnership with Workers United, an established labor union, follows a national trend of an increased number of workers with union representation. 

State Street’s Starbucks isn’t the only group of employees in Madison to strive for better working conditions through unionization. Employees at Sourdough Madison petitioned to join a union early this year, and staffers of nonprofit investigative news outlet Wisconsin Watch organized to form the Wisconsin Watch Union (WWU) under the NewsGuild-CWA in October.   

While union-busting attempts by employers and corporations pepper the idea of unionizing as fraught with complications, the process of forming a union is more straightforward than one may expect. 

According to Cartwright, the movement toward a union starts with only one or a few voices calling for change. 

“Workers a hundred years ago fought for even more basic rights than what we want, and they were willing to die for it. In some cases they did,” Cartwright said. “If they were willing to stand up to groups like the U.S. government at the time and say, ‘We’re not going to take it anymore,’ why should we be scared of Starbucks of all things?”

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In Cartwright and State Street Starbucks’ case, the conversation bloomed after a longstanding manager of more than 20 years retired. Cartwright said even before he transferred to Madison from Georgia in 2022, the State Street branch’s manager shielded employees from the negative impacts of corporate decisions.

However, after her departure, employees faced the continued threat of labor cuts, high minimum weekly hour mandates and a shortage of hours available for those who needed them. 

“I wanna point out that State Street’s Starbucks is the busiest store in the entire state,” Cartwright said.  “There's no reason we should ever be understaffed. We make a lot of money.”

From there, it was clear to Cartwright and his co-workers that unionizing was the best path forward. 

“If you’re spending eight hours a day, five days a week in a workplace that treats you poorly and doesn't give you a livable wage, your quality of life is negatively impacted,” Cartwright said. “Unions raise quality of life, both for individual workers and society as a whole.” 

Step 2: Contacting an organizer

Contacting a union organizer or starting an independent union is the next step, and the first official step to unionizing with the NLRB, according to the board’s official flier

For State Street Starbucks, contacting a union organizer came from responding to corporate Starbucks’ displeased stance toward unionization.

The State Street branch's first organizing committee, composed of Cartwright and two others, reached out to another organizer at the Capitol Square Starbucks branch, which unionized with Starbucks Workers United in June 2022. 

This ultimately led the State Street cafe to present workers with the option of signing union authorization cards, Cartwrigh said. 

“What this card means is ‘I want to be a part of the union, and I want the union to represent me in collective bargaining,’” Cartwright said. “It’s not signing your life away to anything. It’s just saying that this is something I would support, and I would support having an election to decide this.”

Step 3: Requesting voluntary recognition as a union 

Before an election was finalized, State Street Starbucks employees requested the company recognize them as a union interested in collective bargaining for working conditions. 

In a letter to Starbucks CEO Laxman Narasimhan signed by 36 staff members, workers at the Starbucks announced their move towards unionizing in response to “intimidation, labor cuts and unclear standards” from the company’s upper management. 

Upon having their request rejected by the company, the State Street location’s employees moved ahead with filing a petition for elections with the NLRB.  

Step 4: Union elections

Any organization may file a petition to hold a union election with their nearest NLRB regional office if 30% of workers sign union authorization cards.

“We had our card signed, then our election was around a month and a half later,” Cartwright said. “It’s typically pretty fast, and after that you get all kinds of new legal protections in legal recognition as a union.” 

The NLRB’s National Labor Relations Act mandates employers are required to bargain over working conditions in good faith if union elections result in the union winning 50% plus one of votes cast. 

“We won our election handily because as it turns out, nobody was happy with the working conditions and everyone wanted to see change,” Cartwright said. 

Step 5: The aftermath 

Currently, the State Street branch stands as a certified union with Workers United by the NLRB. However, the branch has yet to hear from Starbucks on bargaining over working conditions. 

“Our win was June 1, and since then there has been silence from Starbucks,” Cartwright said. “Not one single word from them or even thinking about bargaining.” 

Prior to the State Street location’s push to unionize, the NLRB ruled that Starbucks’ refusal to bargain with its workers had violated federal labor laws. The NLRB docketed more than 500 complaints of unfair labor practices related to the company or its attorneys, including illegally firing workers who organize.”

Cartwright said corporate resistance and union-busting attempts are not surprising.

“There’s obviously going to be pushback and resistance from those who want to protect corporate interests,” Cartwright said. “I don’t think any other form of organizing faces as much resistance as labor organizing. It’s a multi-million dollar industry. There’s law firms and PR corporations that are entirely marketed around ‘here’s how you can pay us money to make sure your workers don’t organize.’” 

However, Cartwright remains positive about the future prospects of unions in the workforce and believes more people are seeing beneficial results from union membership. 

“There’s going to be that big level of resistance, but as we’ve seen before, most times the people and the will of democracy wins out against money,” Cartwright said. “So I’m hopeful. I’m very hopeful.”

Editor’s note: The Daily Cardinal Editor-in-Chief Drake White-Bergey is an employee of Wisconsin Watch and engaged in activities to form the Wisconsin Watch Union.

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