News & Commentary

July 21, 2023

Greg Volynsky

Greg Volynsky is a student at Harvard Law School.

In Today’s News & Commentary, the NYT chronicles how Starbucks’ anti-union effort demonstrates the failure of labor law, over 650,000 workers threaten to strike over the summer or have already done so, the Biden administration plans to indefinitely keep Su as Acting Secretary of Labor, and Grindr employees seek to unionize.

The New York Times published a profile of Agnes Torregoza, a Starbucks union organizer and barista. The reporting demonstrates, in painful detail, that while union busting is illegal, “consequences are inconsequential.”  

The article highlights several strategies employed by Starbucks. These include closing down unionizing and unionized cafes, as Starbucks has for instance done in Kansas CitySeattleColorado Springs, and Ithaca. Starbucks has allegedly spied on, harassed, and fired union activists (Workers United accused Starbucks of firing 200 workers active in the union effort). 

Most of all, Starbucks has “done a lot of nothing — time-buying, morale-eroding, innocent-seeming nothing.” Starbucks insists on in-person bargaining (which the NLRB general counsel said is illegal) and fails to respond to correspondence. High turnover makes this strategy especially effective, and not one unionized Starbucks store has secured a contract.

At the same time, unions enjoy overwhelming support—the highest in decades—and union petitions increased by 53 percent between 2021 and 2022. And General Counsel Abruzzo has been called an “activist championing the rights of workers.”

Here’s the bottom line: the NLRA is largely toothless. The consequence of interfering with unionizing efforts by, for instance, firing employees—is at worst an order requiring backpay and reinstatement. If the aggrieved employee files a claim at all, it typically takes more than a year for the claim to be considered—long enough, in many instances, to ward off the unionization effort. And if the unionization effort manages to succeed despite this, the company can effectively refuse to bargain, knowing that, at worst, they will be ordered to bargain and provide backpay. 

As Professor Lichtenstein says simply: “The labor law has become broken.”

In other news, Bloomberg reported on Thursday that over 650,000 workers threatening to strike this summer or already doing so. The article attributes the rise in union activity to the after-effects of the pandemic, a shift towards remote and digital work, increased income inequality, and rising costs of living. The surge in strikes includes actors and writers in Hollywood, who are dealing with shifting profit models due to the rise of streaming. Workers from UPS and Detroit’s Big Three automakers are also poised to join if contract negotiations fall through. One Bank of America Corp. analyst estimated the odds of a United Auto Workers strike at over 90%.

Also on Thursday, Politico reported that the Biden administration has decided to retain Julie Su as the acting Labor Secretary indefinitely. The decision was made following a nearly five-month long confirmation battle, and despite opposition from Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema.

Employees at the LGBTQ dating app Grindr have initiated a union drive. The proposed bargaining unit of over 100 employees is pushing to secure existing benefits, pay transparency, job security, and company representation that reflects their userbase.

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