News & Commentary

August 22, 2022

Fred Wang

Fred Wang is a student at Harvard Law School.

In today’s news and commentary, analysis on Starbucks’s “faux”-progressivism, waning worker leverage in the labor market, and what pharmacy work has to say about upper-middle-income work in general.

Amidst a wave of unionizing activity, Starbucks — long heralded as one of the rare “progressive” American corporations — is showing its true profit-first colors, Steven Greenhouse argues in a new piece at the American Prospect. Since the “earliest days” of the unionization campaign at Starbucks, Greenhouse recounts, the company “has taken a fierce approach toward stifling the union.” That strategy has involved closing unionized stores, firing unionizing workers, and offering pay raises (and abortion-travel benefits) only at nonunion stores.

It might be working. Greenhouse points to the dip in union petitions and victories over the past few months, citing data recently crunched by Matt Bruenig over at People’s Policy Project. Worse yet, U.S. labor law is ill equipped to stop Starbucks’s intimidation tactics. “A big problem with the NLRA,” Greenhouse explains, “is that it doesn’t allow for any fines against Starbucks or any other anti-union company, no matter how often they violate the law in seeking to quash unionization efforts.” Starbucks’s union-busting behavior just shows “how broken America’s labor laws are.”

American workers, in the past year, have enjoyed a position of historic strength over employers. “That golden age for workers,” Eleanor Mueller of Politico explains, “appears to be fading fast.” A “unique blend” of one-off “conditions that enabled employees to trade in their jobs for better ones” — rapidly reopening businesses and significant government COVID relief — are proving to be just that: unique and one-off. Employers are “posting fewer jobs, rescinding job offers[,] and hiring workers at a slower pace.” Unemployment insurance claims, meanwhile, are going up — as are the number of people working part time, “a reliable sign that more people were having difficulty finding full-time work.” 

What this reveals, Professor David Weil remarked, is something we “have long known”: “[L]abor market power is tipped towards employers. That’s why labor and workplace laws and unions are essential.” Additional safety rails — such as a “robust child-care infrastructure,” Mueller notes — “would mitigate the cooling already underway,” in part by allowing more parents (especially women) to “fully participate in the workforce.”

The experience of pharmacists — a highly skilled and highly in-demand class of workers — might explain why pay growth amongst upper-middle-income workers generally has stalled, the New York Times’s Noam Scheiber covers. The very factors “that have weighed on other middle-class professions” have cooled the market for pharmacists too. Large corporations like Walgreens and CVS have acquired their competitors, “slow[ing] the growth of [hiring] retail outlets.” And automation has “further reduced demand for workers.”

The result has been pay stagnation, despite there being not enough workers to meet customer demand. Perhaps it’s a sign that more-affulent workers “are willing to accept lower wage growth” in exchange for being able to “work from home.” Or perhaps it’s evidence that workers are disempowered “at all levels of status.”

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