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Placing the Unionization Wave in Historical Context

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Richard Bensinger, left, who is advising unionization efforts, along with baristas Casey Moore, right, Brian Murray, second from left, and Jaz Brisack, second from right, discuss their efforts to unionize three Buffalo-area stores, inside the movements headquarters on Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021 in Buffalo, N.Y. Workers at three Starbucks stores in Buffalo will hold union elections next month after winning a case before the National Labor Relations Board. (AP Photo/Carolyn Thompson).

I was happy to provide some quotes for this Marketwatch article about the unionization push as Amazon, Starbucks, and other iconic companies of the new economy. Mostly, they were thinking about these issues in historical context.

Though labor historians say the push is in its early days, Erik Loomis also said it could be as important to the labor movement as the Service Employees International Union’s organization of janitors in the 1990s and 2000s, and could take on additional significance because of the companies involved.

Organizing the “iconic companies of the new economy… is like organizing Ford F, -3.63% and GM GM, -2.14% [starting] in the ’30s,” Loomis, who has written books on the labor movement and is an associate professor at the University of Rhode Island, told MarketWatch.

U.S. auto makers were the dominant companies in the most important industry in the nation early in the 20th century. Big Tech occupies that spot today, but unions have so far organized just a fraction of the massive, 1 million-plus workforce of one of the tech giants, Amazon. And to truly build on their early success at Starbucks, they will need to reach others who have similar concerns and grievances at places like Walmart, which has been defeating unions for its entire history

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Givan said workers are becoming more confident about standing up for themselves and organizing. “They can leave and get another job across the street,” she added.

Loomis agreed. “An Amazon worker can probably find another job right now,” he said, adding that wages are rising and “there are more options for working-class people.”

On the other hand, a Walmart worker may not have the same choices because of geography, Loomis said. Walmart stores tend to be located, in rural areas or away from city centers, and in some places, a job at Walmart may be the highest-paying job available.

Last fall, Walmart said it had raised wages for more than 1.2 million of its workers in the past year, and that its average starting wage in the U.S. was $16.40 an hour.

Walmart workers who have tried to organize over the years have encountered tremendous pushback from the company, which in some instances has been accused of closing stores where its employees were trying to form a union. Loomis recalled that when butchers in Texas won union recognition in 2000, Walmart “simply eliminated butchers from all its stores.”

That type of approach is unlikely to work for Amazon because of the difference between its warehouses and Walmart’s stores. It would hurt Amazon much more to close down a warehouse than it would for Walmart to shutter a store or department, so Amazon workers may feel more emboldened to speak up.

Look, we’re pretty far away from knowing what all this is going to lead to. But the first Apple store just field for unionization the other day and that fits perfectly into the model I’ve developed about corporate performative liberalism opening the door for workers to say, wait a minute this company might talk a good game about rights but they treat us like crap and let’s do something about it. And with over 70% of the workers already signing cards, this is a union likely to win that election. Something is going on, that’s for sure.

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