The Covid-19 pandemic continues to roil the food industry. Barely 2 years after hundreds of essential workers died from Covid-19, corporate profits continue to soar, driven by industry consolidation and price inflation. But high profile organizing campaigns have captured the imaginations of many food retail and service sector workers, reflecting a steady escalation of discontent with the status quo and a newfound faith in their collective power.
Many of the largest companies in food retail and hospitality continue to pay their workforce far less than a living wage, leading to endemic food insecurity and anxiety among essential workers. The labor share of national income has decreased and real wage growth declined 2.6% year over year, while corporate profits continue to far outpace wage growth. The pandemic also enabled a huge transfer of wealth upwards, as shareholder wealth grew by 57 times as much as worker wages. Meanwhile, the CEO-worker pay gap grew even wider in 2021, jumping to 670 to 1, with employee pay rarely keeping pace with price inflation.
And such inequality has been objectively deadly during the pandemic. A recent study showed that Americans working in retail and service sectors bore the brunt of the Covid-19 pandemic. The death rates of low income adults were 5 times than that of high income adults. And while low income adults made up just one-third of the working age population, they accounted for over two-thirds of Covid-19 deaths.
But the pandemic era has also been punctuated by victories for unionized food workers. RWDSU members at Kellogg’s
Kim Sisson, a Vons supervisor and bargaining committee member remarked that, “This new contract feels like we are finally taking a step in the right direction towards making grocery jobs a viable career option.”
And over 150 Starbucks
So what is it about unions that make them so appealing, particularly for the 74% of Americans aged 18 to 24 who would join a union if they could? First, a labor union is not a business. It is a 501(c)(5) tax exempt organization and files no articles of incorporation. A union is an association of workers that promotes and protects the welfare, interests and rights of its members, primarily through collective bargaining. It is created by and for workers, who also have the power to decertify it through a majority vote.
Next, this right to organize is fundamental. It is not up to any CEO or supervisor. The formation of unions was enabled by the National Labor Relations Act, signed in 1935 by FDR under pressure from a depression-era labor movement. This also established the National Labor Relations Board. The creation of a union is initiated by employees who file a petition with the NLRB showing that at least 30% of employees wish to organize. The NLRA makes it illegal for employers to intimidate workers from trying to form a union or threaten to close down businesses where unions form. However, this is rarely enforced, considering what many companies get away with to disrupt union campaigns. The initial goal for newly unionized workers is the ratification of a collective bargaining agreement, so that they have a collective say in the terms of their employment, including pay scales, schedules, grievance policies and workplace safety. And unions also wield the power of strikes, which have been an effective tool recently, with over 73,500 workers involved in strikes so far in 2022.
Unions, despite now only representing 11% of American workers, have had an indelible impact on daily life. Unions are the reason for the federal minimum wage, Social Security, child labor laws, occupational health and safety laws, unemployment insurance, worker’s comp, the 40 hour work week and the weekend. Yes, the weekend. Social progress was therefore not inevitable nor was it due to the guiding hand of benevolent, enlightened elites. Declining unionization, on the other hand, has been directly linked to rising inequality and a shrinking middle class.
The paychecks prove this. Unionized workers earn 10% more than non-union peers, have better benefits and collectively raise wages across their respective sectors, even benefitting their non-union peers in many cases. Unions have also lowered racial and gender pay gaps, with Black unionized workers earning 17% more, Latin/Hispanic workers earning 23% more and Asian workers 14% more than their unorganized peers, And unionized women earn 52% more that non-union women in the service sector. And while there are plenty of companies that do right by their employees, unions provide what investors would refer to as downside protection for members. Legally binding contracts ensure workers’ needs are prioritized during downturns, bankruptcies or other tough spots in company business cycles.
Unions are also more than just a vehicle for communication between workers and management. They are about having an equal seat at the table and about redistributing bargaining power, so that employees are not on their own when asking for a raise or safer working conditions. Case in point is Amazon, whose CEO can unironically claim, “It is much harder when you have a union to have a direct relationship with your manager and to get things done quickly”. Yet former Amazon supervisor and current Amazon Labor Union President Chris Smalls was fired in April 2020 after directly and quickly expressing concerns about unsafe COVID working conditions at his Amazon warehouse. So it’s not about communication. It is about power.
This is also why union campaigns can be brutal for workers. Three quarters of private sector workers face union avoidance consultants and captive audience meetings. And up to 1 in 5 unions organizers are fired for their activities and 34% of employers fire workers during organizing campaigns.
But as the saying goes, the struggle continues. Workers have also used other methods to achieve better pay, benefits and working conditions. Workplace standards boards in right to work states have enabled essential workers to have a voice in setting policies that affect them, such as in Houston, Texas. Some worker-led organizations have opted for solidarity organizing instead of collective bargaining, such as Brandworkers in New York City. Others, such as Worker’s Justice Project, have organized immigrant gig workers for better working conditions and more control over delivery apps. And rural worker centers like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and Migrant Justice organize farmworkers who have been historically excluded from NLRA provisions. They have catalyzed a movement for Worker-Driven Social Responsibility, where corporate and institutional buyers sign legally binding agreements that ensure better pay and safety standards for farmworkers. The connective tissues here is the collective agency of working people, coming together to forge a better life.
Tevita Uhatafe is a union member, an essential worker, and the Vice President of the Tarrant County, Texas AFL-CIO Central Labor Council. His assessment is clear-eyed yet hopeful, that “essential workers are realizing just how hard it is to survive under the current economic climate, that it’s geared to keep us down. Many workers are organizing, swapping school or medical debt stories. And with little to no formal organizing training, they’re using their own stories as an opportunity to learn each other’s issues, and how we can make gains together. Collective power is the only way we can force corporations to recognize that their workforce isn’t satisfied with the meager compensation they receive and that we want to be treated with dignity.”