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Workers at REI and Starbucks are doing the impossible and gaining traction for unions. Here’s what they’re hoping to solve

March 12, 2022, 2:00 PM UTC

While union membership in the U.S. is at a new historic low for all private sector employees — 6.1% — it’s even lower in retail and food service according to 2021 Bureau of Labor Statistics data, with membership standing at 4.3% and 1.2% respectively. But those are the industries where the newest wave of union activity has found a foothold. 

This week, the number of unionized Starbucks locations in the U.S. doubled when three stores in Buffalo, NY, counted their ballots on Wednesday. Last week, workers at an REI store in Manhattan voted to join the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union with an 86% majority, becoming the first of the company’s 174 locations to unionize. 

“I am proud to be here in this moment with my coworkers at REI Soho as a part of this new wave of unionization efforts that is sweeping the nation,” worker and organizer Claire Chang said in a statement shared with Fortune.

A few dozen stores with a few dozen workers each might seem like a drop in the bucket in terms of labor organizing, admits Ariel Avgar, a professor at Cornell’s Industrial and Labor Relations School. “[But] the symbolic meaning, the press, and the visibility that it gives unionization as a legitimate effort to improve working conditions is huge,” he says. “This is a very different kind of [labor] climate than we’ve seen in a very long time.” 

“My future right now is REI, so I feel the need to make this a sustainable place for me to work.”

Graham Gale, technical specialist, REI

The win didn’t come without steady pushback. REI published a website that outlines why it believes unionization is unnecessary, arguing that the introduction of a union would inhibit the company’s ability to communicate directly with its workers. It’s a point that Starbucks also made in its own campaign against union organizing at its stores, which has now spread to over 120 locations across 26 states.

“REI firmly believes that the decision of whether or not to be represented by a union is an important one, and we respect each employee’s right to choose or refuse union representation,” reads a company statement provided to Fortune in response to the election at the Soho store.

But against the backdrop of the pandemic’s essential/non-essential discourse, union organizers are making a strong case for why workers need them now more than ever. Since March 2020, retail and food service workers have seen little improvement in their working conditions while the companies they work for continue to enjoy record-breaking profits.

Add to the mix a competitive labor market, and workers might be more sympathetic to pro-union arguments than they have in decades past. The legacy of Occupy Wall Street and more recent movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter have also helped make social justice a normalized part of workplace conversations.

Unions are well positioned to argue for “bread and butter issues like wages and benefits but also broader questions of fairness and justice and equity in the workplace,” says Avgar. The successful campaigns at Starbucks and REI have done both at once, with organizers linking day-to-day concerns with the fight for more abstract values.

“This isn’t fighting the company,” Avgar argues. “It’s wanting to make the company better.” It’s a philosophy that works well at small workplaces, like an individual Starbucks or REI store, because it allows “very intimate interactions between the union organizers and the employees who are unionizing.”

These close relationships are especially important when working with young workers who are unfamiliar with organizing. Graham Gale, 24, remembers the first meetup of the REI Soho employees in October 2020 in Washington Square Park. One colleague asked the group: “Do any of you have experience with unions?” “Not really” was the unanimous reply. 

The group started a Discord channel and began to meet up regularly to talk about unionizing and how to move the campaign forward.

Raising the standard across the board

Page Smith, a 28-year-old barista and organizer at a Starbucks location in Atlanta, sees the excitement around the successful effort to turn Georgia blue during the 2020 presidential election persisting in her store’s unionization campaign, where their far-off goals are just as ambitious. She sees unionization as a path to raising the bar for working conditions across food service, since Starbucks wages and benefits are “already considered better than the standard.”

“Whether the Wendy’s next door to us unionizes after we do or not, they’re going to have to make their wages more competitive and their benefits more competitive if they want to attract people over a unionized Starbucks,” she says.

Ky Fireside, a 31-year-old barista who works for a Starbucks in Eugene, Ore., has a similar outlook. “We have this feeling that if we can turn Starbucks into a unionized retail food service setting that can change all of retail, all of food service, for the better,” Fireside says. “If we can get Starbucks to do it, we can get anybody to do it.” All eight Starbucks locations in Eugene have filed petitions for elections.

Unions traditionally have advocated for workers in an effort to improve wages and benefits over lifelong careers with their companies. At Starbucks and REI, workers still see the merits of unionization even if they don’t plan to stay for long. “This is not my permanent career, although that is the case for some people,” says Fireside, who’s planning to attend graduate school for archaeology and museum studies. “But I still know that it could be better, and I want this to be a better experience for everybody that comes after me.” 

For Gale, unionization is just as much about the ideal of having a stronger voice in the company as it is about those day-to-day improvements in the workplace. They remember worrying about paying rent when their hours were unexpectedly cut in January 2020, and then enduring the stress of filing for unemployment while on furlough for the first four months of the pandemic. 

Two years into the pandemic, Gale is looking for a greater sense of stability and community.

“I don’t have a super hopeful view of the future,” says Gale, which they attribute to the omnipresent threat of climate change and the “perpetual grind of capitalism.” “My future right now is REI, so I feel the need to make this a sustainable place for me to work.”

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