Socialist Alternative

US workers getting organised: Could Britain be next?

Beginning with the successful union elections at two Starbucks locations in Buffalo, New York in December 2021 the United States has seen a powerful wave of unionisation. At the time of writing, 94 Starbucks stores have won their union elections and 74 more have filed to hold elections over the next period. 

At the same time a monumental development has taken place in Staten Island, New York. Over 8,000 workers at the JFK8 Amazon fulfilment centre voted by a majority to join a union. That vote is the first successful unionisation vote in history at an Amazon facility in the United States. These victories have had a thundering impact and big implications for workers not only in the US but around the world who are watching these developments with enthusiasm. This begs the question – could Britain be next?

Global trends

What’s happening at Starbucks and Amazon hasn’t dropped out of midair. It’s part of a whole process that has matured over the past several years among the working class of the United States – which in itself reflects broader global trends. The economic and political crisis of capitalism has had a transformative effect on consciousness and resulted in incredible political and class polarisation. 

In addition the pandemic has had a dual effect in showing that it is the working class that runs society and also raising workers’ expectations around what work should be – specifically in regards to pay, safety and conditions. The impact of this has been particularly acute in precarious jobs dominated by younger workers. Other reflections of this have been the so-called ‘Great Resignation’ where workers are leaving these jobs en masse in protest at the awful conditions and last year’s ‘Striketober’ strike wave.

In the US, there are two ways for a union to become the representative of workers in a workplace. Either by voluntary recognition of the employer once the majority of a workplace has signed union cards or by filing for a union recognition election with a branch of the government called the ‘National Labor Relations Board’ (NLRB). 

Almost all unionisation efforts end up using the latter as the bosses have little to no reason to want to voluntarily recognise collective organisation of workers that might act as a brake on their level of exploitation. However, even with the election route there is no neutrality from the employer and the bosses conduct fierce union-busting campaigns including victimisation of leading worker organisers and creating a general environment of intimidation.

Union busting bosses

We’ve seen these practices in full effect at Starbucks and Amazon. When the first three Starbucks locations filed for elections, over 100 people at different levels of corporate management were flown into these stores from across the country to create an atmosphere of fear around the vote. In Memphis, seven different Starbucks worker-organisers were fired in retaliation for being vocal supporters of the union. 

This has been repeated in a number of stores. Recently at an Amazon facility in upstate New York a key union supporter, herself six months pregnant, had her position changed to picking up litter in the warehouse’s carpark and her partner was sacked. Where wind of unionisation has been caught, both Amazon and Starbucks have tried to flood the workforce with anti-union ‘workers’ in advance of the votes to scuttle the election. This was a critical tactic in Amazon defeating the union at a second location in Staten Island called LDJ5 recently.

While the movement will have ebbs and flows, individual defeats as well as victories, the trendline is towards more unionisation efforts. And not just at these particular employers, as the Starbucks effort has already had a knock-on effect at different independent coffee chains. The NLRB released statistics in April that union election petitions have increased  57% versus this period. in 2021, putting it on pace to be the highest rate in over a decade. And of those petitions 27.5% were in the accommodations and food industry versus a usual average of 4%. 

With Amazon’s sheer enormity, its position in one of the key sectors of the US and global economy (logistics) and its hyperexploitative working conditions, it is guaranteed there  will be continued efforts by workers to organise their facilities. In fact in the wake of the JFK8 victory organisers said workers from over 50 different facilities had contacted them about pulling together similar efforts. 

The Teamsters union, one of the biggest in the US with 1.2 million members, is also conducting its own campaign to unionise Amazon. Nor has the push at Starbucks stopped. Each day sees more and more stores file for elections. And in general these elections have resulted in overwhelming, sometimes even unanimous, victories for the union – something that was not certain early on. It can also be expected that at some point that unionisation efforts will move into other industries and sectors.

A new 1930s? Lessons for today

Given the scope and some features of the phenomenon, even mainstream capitalist commentators have openly raised the question of whether we are seeing developments on the scale of the 1930s – both from a sense of awe and of fear. The 1930s saw the biggest and fastest expansion of the labour movement in US history. 

In 1933 US trade unions had hit their lowest membership since World War I. Only 2.8 million workers remained in the unions, around 10% of the workforce. Despite high unemployment, attacks on wages and conditions, and the general economic malaise facing the working class, the strategies that had built the labour movement originally – bold, militant and fighting tactics based on class solidarity –  had largely been abandoned and outright opposed by the existing union leadership of the AFL (American Federation of Labor) in favour of political alliances with the Democratic Party and behind-closed-doors deals with the bosses. The concept of the strike had been dumped or even negotiated away in entire industries. 

On top of this the AFL leadership refused to organise the new industrial sectors of employment that began to emerge en masse during the period, sticking to what they dubbed workers in ‘skilled’ employment aka ‘craft unionism’. After a period of capitalist triumphalism in the 1920s, it’s no wonder that this saw a marked decline in union power and membership. 

Mass unionisation

However, class struggle proceeds according to its own laws. In particular the fundamental contradiction of capitalist society that means the working class is compelled to fight for what we need to survive. Despite the inaction of the AFL leadership, 1934 saw the development of three important strikes that fundamentally reinvigorated the labour movement. 

These strikes were notable in that they were not only led by Marxists and socialists but also that they took up militant tactics, relying on rank-and-file mobilisation and leadership from the workers themselves and building solidarity beyond just the workforce involved. These successful strikes led to a wave of struggle and mass unionisation including what would become the Congress of Industrial Organisations. By the mid-1950s, one out of every three workers was in a union.

We cannot yet say how much the period that we’re living through may resemble the period of the 1930s. And though being mindful that historical analogies have their limits, there are some features of what is happening in the US right now that have important resemblances to that era and big implications for the future of the trade union movement. 

Union density in the US now is a similar place as it was in the early 1930s. Around 10% of American workers are union members with the overwhelming majority of those in the public sector. The initial fights for unions are coming in hyperexploitative industries with low wages, bad working conditions and high levels of casualization that are often depicted as being ‘unskilled’ labour.

 In contrast to top-down, staff-driven approaches that union bureaucracies have favoured for a whole historical period, these efforts have a large emphasis on being driven and led by the workers themselves. 

Action to win union recognition

At Amazon’s JFK8 in particular, the approach there involved a large worker-dominated organising committee, with workers on every shift acting as partisans for the union, adopting concrete, fighting demands and taking a militant approach of naming the bosses as the enemy and challenging their anti-union narratives through a new, independent union called Amazon Labor Union.

At Starbucks, there has been increasing recognition of the need to take workplace action to win the union and pushback against union-busting. These tactics will not just be necessary for winning the union but also in the fierce battles that will come around securing the first contracts.

Americans’ views of unions are the most popular they’ve been since records began in 1965, 68% of people view them in a positive light. The flood of unionisation has actually led to a situation where the NLRB itself says it does not have enough staff to fulfil its duties and US President Joe Biden has had to increase its funding in next year’s budget proposal. 

Despite the likelihood of an economic recession in the near future, which will have a certain impact in the short-term, the overall position of workers in the US points to even more organising efforts and big class battles. For instance, there is likely to be another big potential contract showdown in the logistics sector between the 1.2 million strong Teamsters Union and United Parcel Services next year which involves 340,000 workers.

In the context of the ‘leaders of the left’ like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez failing to take a combative stance against both attacks from the right-wing but also the general status quo that is crushing American workers and young people, workplace struggle is an increasingly attractive way to fight back. With each union election victory or strike it is gathering momentum, making unions and the idea of workplace struggle more popular. 

While it will not be a straight line, it’s clear there’s been a fundamental shift that will continue to bring new layers into the US trade union movement and in combination with shifts in the existing unions, a renewal of its fighting spirit.

Is Britain next?

The conditions that have led to the developments in the US are not unique to that country. In Britain there exist many of the same elements. While the cost of living bites and forces ‘heat or eat’ decisions on millions, corporations are making bumper profits. The prospect of recession looms like the sword of Damocles. Young workers are facing some of the worst pay and conditions. The so-called opposition of the Labour Party is more concerned with purging its ranks of the left than fighting for improved conditions for workers and young people. 

At the same time, a process of radicalisation is taking place. There were massive mobilisations in the UK as part of the global wave of Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020. Young people are becoming politicised and moving to the left on a range of issues. Of particular importance is the degree to which consciousness has become ‘internationalised’ where developments in other countries can have profound impacts across the world.

It’s clear that the victories at Amazon and Starbucks are already having international effects. Several unions have expressed their intention to intensify their efforts at Amazon in their own countries. And the Starbucks campaign is already being mirrored by similar processes in the UK. 

For example the Hospitality branch of Unite in Northern Ireland, which was only established a couple of years ago and within which International Socialist Alternative members play an active role, has embarked upon its own fierce worker-led organising campaign in chain coffee stores which has seen its membership grow tenfold already. 

Unions must show a lead

The question is not when these opportunities will come to Britain. The conditions already exist. What is necessary is a lead from the trade unions. Despite its weaknesses, overall the trade union movement in the UK is in a much stronger overall position relative to the US. 

Roughly one in four workers is in a trade union, almost one in two when it comes to the public sector. The private sector is a different tale and when it comes to precarious jobs dominated by young workers like hospitality that figure plummets to less than one in twenty. 

However it’s been shown in recent history that when unions gear up for a fight, membership surges. When it appeared in late 2020 that the education unions might face down the government against their chaotic and premature push to reopen the schools in the height of the pandemic, thousands of new workers joined the unions and hundreds of existing members newly signed up as reps.

 If the unions, in conjunction with launching similar mass organising drives like those in the US, took a truly combative stance in fighting the cost of living crisis it would become a powerful beacon to millions of yet unorganised workers to join the trade union movement.