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Organized labor is making a comeback nationwide. Will it spread to North Dakota and Minnesota?

Buoyed by union victories at national companies like Starbucks, Amazon and Target, the organized labor movement is once again on the rise. Will that trend reach North Dakota and Minnesota? Labor leaders are optimistic it will.

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Illustration by Troy Becker
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FARGO — After decades of attrition, the labor movement appears to be making a comeback throughout the United States.

Motivated by the COVID-19 pandemic, droves of workers have sought to unionize their workplaces. Huge national corporations, including a trio with operations in the Fargo-Moorhead area, have also felt the reverberations of this trend.

In April, the pro-union cause secured a marquee victory when the largest Amazon facility in New York voted to become the company’s first unionized facility . The glow of that victory, however, was dimmed slightly when a second Staten Island facility rejected union representation a month later .

Target employees at a store in Christianburg, Virginia, also joined the unionization wave, filing Tuesday, May 10 to have the National Labor Relations Board hold a union election .

Undoubtedly though, it is Starbucks employees who have made the most headway in this modern day renaissance for organized labor.

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According to data accessed Tuesday, May 24, from the National Labor Relations Board, which is tasked with protecting workers’ rights to join together and collectively bargain, employees at 80 Starbucks stores have voted in favor of union representation. That includes a pair of Starbucks locations in the Twin Cities, with four more metro area elections to come.

Driven most prominently by Starbucks employees’ unionizing success, the labor movement is enjoying something of a moment in the sun. The renewed enthusiasm surrounding unions has labor leaders optimistic that moment will carry over into North Dakota and Greater Minnesota.

‘It was a long time coming’

If the pandemic served as the initial spark in reigniting the union wave, Starbucks employees in Buffalo, N.Y., can be attributed with pouring gasoline on the fire.

It was there in December 2021 where the first Starbucks store certified union representation , joining the Workers United union. The dominoes began falling from there. In the span of roughly five months, 79 other Starbucks stores followed suit across the country.

Esaú Chavez, an organizer for the Chicago and Midwest Joint Regional Board of Workers United, said the newfound zeal for unionizing is a combination of three factors.

Chavez anticipated that the “pendulum” would eventually swing back towards unions after decades of declining memberships, with the pandemic redirecting momentum. “The labor movement, working class and unions have been really beat up,” he told The Forum. “Union density has gone down steadily for the past maybe 30 to 50 years. I think it was a long time coming for working class folks to come together and demand better wages.”

Additionally, he explained that workers have been leading the charge, with organizations like his at the ready. “The workers have really taken it and run with it. It’s not like we’re doing persuasion here to get workers. They’re reaching out to us,” Chavez said.

That was the case for St. Paul’s Starbucks location at 300 Snelling Ave., which unionized in late April . Marshall Steele, a barista there, said employees had been discussing ways to improve working conditions for quite some time. “There had been people talking about it for a while,” Steele recounted. “I think it all started to coalesce into something we were actually doing when the store in Buffalo won their vote.”

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Seeing the union’s victory in Buffalo cemented the idea for Steele and others in St. Paul that unionizing was a possibility. “When Buffalo won their vote, I think it kind of gave everyone the ‘we can do something about it’ moment,” Steele said.

Brewing up a storm

Once Steele and other co-workers made their union aspirations public, the dynamic between employees and management swiftly changed.

Both store and district managers began questioning employees about the goings-on of the union push.

Further, management also took to posting fliers throughout the store in an effort to dissuade workers from unionizing. The messages, Steele recalled, typically stated that the union couldn’t make any guarantees for workers and that unionizing could lead workers to lose money. Steele suspects this was done to wear down the employees’ spirit. “It was very much just them manipulating the information and the presentation of the information to make it look like there was actual debate about whether or not unions would be good for worker compensation,” Steele said.

All told, Steele said the election process took four months. Throughout that time, he reported that employees stuck together and even found support among customers who had become aware of the union push. “Among the staff at the store, the announcement of the vote and leading up through the vote, even into now, spirits have been very high,” Steele said.

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Two Starbucks employees from the unionized store at 300 Snelling Ave. in St. Paul visited another unionized shop in Minneapolis to show their support for the union cause.
Contributed / Chicago and Midwest Joint Regional Board of Workers United

Chavez said the experience at 300 Snelling is comparable to other union campaigns Workers United has witnessed at Starbucks.

The unionization process, he said, begins with looking around for leads at various Starbucks stores. Those leads turn into conversations between employee leaders and Workers United.

Then, both workers and organizers begin collecting signed union cards to gauge interest among employees. Workers can file for the NLRB to hold an election with signed cards from just 30% of employees at the location, though Chavez said they prefer a “strong majority.”

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At that point, workers and organizers go public with their campaign in the form of a letter sent to store managers and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz requesting that the company voluntarily recognizes the union.

Chavez said it’s at that point where the “anti-union behavior” starts. That can manifest as enforcing rules which weren’t previously enforced, hanging or handing out fliers or even firing employees , he noted.

After the public announcement, Chavez said Workers United will “keep a magnifying glass” on the location. “A lot of times if there’s a bad manager there, the manager will kind of really start to straighten up a bit,” he said. “They come off really apologetic and tell them things will be different and run a pretty run of the mill anti-union campaign.”

‘They just deserve better things’

Bernie Burnham, the president of the Minnesota AFL-CIO, has been closely monitoring the recent string of positive union news.

Ask her about the success of unions, be it at Starbucks, Amazon or Target, and the word “exciting” comes up frequently. “People have just realized there’s a better way to work and that they all deserve much better pay, respect, benefits and all those things that unions can bring to them,” Burnham said.

Facing health risks during the pandemic, she said, led workers to realize “they just deserve better things,” leading to the union push. “I just think that they stood up for their rights and made it known that they needed to be treated better,” Burnham remarked.

Landis Larson, Burnham’s North Dakota counterpart, agreed that the pandemic led employees to realize that their employers weren’t looking after them as well as they ought to be. “I think people are realizing the usefulness that a union has in their workplace,” Larson said.

Larson has been North Dakota’s AFL-CIO president for three years. He’s yet to hear any rumblings of unionizing at Starbucks, Amazon or Target, but that doesn’t mean union activity has been silent in the state. “In the last year, I’ve had more calls from people looking to organize than I’ve ever seen the whole time I’ve been doing this job,” he said. “I know the organizing is increasing.”

If unionizing chatter picks up at either of the three national brands, don’t expect Larson to publicize it. To prevent union-busting tactics, he plans to keep quiet. “Even if they did, I’d keep it close to my chest,” he said, referring to potential unionization efforts at either Starbucks, Amazon or Target.

Fighting ‘skeleton crews’ and more

Beyond increased wages and benefits, Steele has other aspirations for the union at Starbucks in St. Paul.

At the top of the list is improved training and staffing. During busy holidays, Steele commented that staffing has been “drastically short of what it needs to be.”

This, Chavez explained, is the result of Starbucks corporate policies to deploy ‘skeleton crews’ or schedule people just under the amount of hours they would need to receive insurance benefits.

Those scheduling practices wind up hurting people like Steele. Steele said that workers routinely have to cover up to 20 hours per week and that those issues were exacerbated by absences due to COVID-19.

Starbucks , Target and Amazon all market themselves as employee-friendly companies, with each company devoting specific websites to outlining their employee benefits and friendly culture.

In the case of Starbucks, Chavez acknowledged that the company does offer a strong package of benefits, but he noted the company isn’t completely thorough. “Starbucks really promotes themselves as a very progressive organization — and they do have a lot of great benefits — but they cut a lot of corners,” he said.

Specifically referencing Amazon’s reputation, Larson noted that while wages are higher, expectations are unreasonably inflated, leading to stress among employees. “From everything I understand, they’re very competitive in the wage category, but they expect so much out of their employees,” he said. “The pressure is so high to perform and if you don’t perform, they’re going to get rid of you right away. They expect a lot.”

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An Amazon Fulfillment Center employee prepares a package Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021 in Fargo. Chris Flynn / The Forum

In a statement to The Forum, a Starbucks spokesperson said that the company is monitoring the demands made by unionized stores in an effort to improve. “We are listening and learning from the partners in these stores, as we always do across the country. Starbucks success—past, present, and future—is built on how we partner together, always with Our Mission and Values at our core. We’ve been clear in our belief that we are better together as partners, without a union between us, and that conviction has not changed,” the company stated.

The spokesperson also pointed to a recent letter from Schultz to Starbucks employees . “We will become the best version of Starbucks by co-creating our future directly as partners. And we will strengthen the Starbucks community by upholding each other’s dreams; upholding the standards and rituals of the company; celebrating partner individuality and voice; and upholding behaviors of mutual respect and dignity,” Schultz wrote.

A December letter from Starbucks executive vice president and North American president Rossann Williams said that the company respected employees’ right to organize and promised that Starbucks would bargain in good faith.

In a previous letter, Williams also wrote that “the vote outcomes will not change our shared purpose or how we will show up for each other. … We will keep listening, we will keep connecting and we will keep being in service of one another because that’s what we’ve always done and what it means to be partner.”

A further response was not received when The Forum asked Starbucks specifically how and when the company would address the concerns raised by Steele and others.

‘Excited to keep the movement rolling’

Burnham, Larson and Chavez all anticipated that the labor movement would continue to rack up more wins in the coming months.

In Minnesota, Burnham is expecting the unionizing push will extend beyond the Twin Cities. Among others, she pointed to Half Price Books as well as breweries and distilleries as recent union success stories. “I think that as people watch, they realize that this is about making life better for everybody. It’s not about pointing fingers saying, ‘Why do you have it?’ It’s, ‘You’ve got that, I can get that too if I do the work,’” she said. “It’s been an interesting time for us and hopefully this will just make life better for a whole lot of Minnesotans and that we’ll continue to see the growth around the country.”

With a labor ally in President Joe Biden, Burnham said it was time for unions to seize the momentum. “There was a time in our country when unions were started and were built and they were all about improving life for people. I think that we are there again,” she remarked. “We’ve had a lot of years of kind of loss of unions, but I think this is a moment in time when they will continue to build.”

Larson said union organizers are already active in North Dakota. “I can say that they are here. There are people organizing unions in North Dakota,” he said. “You name it, there’s people looking to form a union.”

Chavez confirmed that there currently aren’t any active Starbucks union campaigns in North Dakota. “We don’t have anything public in North Dakota. We’re looking forward to getting something there, but at this moment, we don’t have a public campaign in North Dakota,” he commented.

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A group of Starbucks workers gathered inside the Minneapolis City Hall to voice their support of a pro-union resolution passed by the Minneapolis City Council.
Contributed / Chicago and Midwest Joint Regional Board of Workers United

That said, he pointed to four more stores around the Twin Cities that will be holding union elections soon. “We’re working with plenty of other stores, it’s just a matter of making sure they’re ready to file,” Chavez said. “We’re excited to keep the movement rolling.”

As for Steele, the hard part is over, but collective bargaining still looms. Steele and others are also working to get the St. Paul City Council to support a pro-union resolution that the Minneapolis City Council recently backed .

Steele and the rest of the employees at 300 Snelling went toe-to-toe with Starbucks and won by a resounding 14-1 vote. Asked if they regretted any of it, Steele provided a quick response. “Zero regrets so far,” Steele beamed. “I’m very happy with everything we’ve managed to get done thus far.

Thomas Evanella is a reporter for The Forum. He's worked for The Forum for over three years, primarily reporting on business news. He's also the host of the InForum Business Beat podcast, which can be streamed at InForum.com/podcasts or wherever you listen to your podcasts. Reach him at tevanella@forumcomm.com or by calling 701-241-5518. Follow him on Twitter @ThomasEvanella.
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