WASHINGTON – A bunch of baristas in Buffalo voted recently to form a union. And to hear the nation's top labor leader tell it, there's nothing unusual about that.
"You know, it doesn't surprise me at all, because it's happening everywhere," said Richard L. Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, when asked last week about the unionization of workers at Buffalo's Spot Coffee.
"People all over the country are organizing, and here's why: The workers do not believe that either the political system or the economic system is working for them," Trumka said. "So they've turned to each other. They understand that the only way that they're going to get anything is by joining together and using their collective power."
Trumka has both anecdotes and numbers to show that the unionization of Spot Coffee workers is not an anomaly, but rather a small part of a national trend. On this Labor Day, organized labor in America appears to be slowly pulling out of its long decline.
The Starbucks Workers Union now represents baristas at some locations in New York, Chicago and other cities. Flight attendants at JetBlue voted to form a union in April. Journalists at the Los Angeles Times, Buzzfeed and several other media outlets voted to unionize, too, recently. Even graduate students, long among the nation's low-wage workers, unionized at several Ivy League campuses, as well as at Georgetown University.
"Whether you're in a coffee store, whether you're in a coal mine, whether you're in a classroom at college or kindergarten, your only way to get something is to come together and bargain collectively," Trumka said at a breakfast for reporters, which was sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor.
Some 250,000 people nationwide joined a union in 2017, Trumka noted, and a similar number did the same last year.
It's all part of a little-noticed trend. After decades of shrinkage, the number of American workers affiliated with a union has increased in four of the past six years. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 16.4 million Americans worked at unionized workplaces last year – up nearly 3% since 2012.
What's more, Gallup polling data shows that the national labor movement's public approval rating is at 62%, its highest level in 15 years.
"That's sort of why I am so excited about this Labor Day and where we are, because that type of momentum and that type of belief in workers believing in each other is really catching fire all over the country," Trumka said.
Of course, not is all well with the labor movement. Many of the manufacturing industries that have traditionally been heavily unionized continued their long decline in 2018, meaning the overall percentage of unionized workers fell slightly, from 11.9% to 11.7%.
But unionization actually grew in several industries that are not usually associated with the labor movement. Farm workers – who, in New York, won the right to organize just this year – saw unionization in agriculture increase 0.4% last year, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics. The percentage of people working in sales who are in a union edged up slightly.
And those Spot Coffee workers in Buffalo are not alone: The percentage of food service workers who are represented by a union increased 0.2% in 2018.
By a margin of 43-6, the Spot workers voted Aug. 20 to join a union. The vote means that 90 Spot employees at locations on Hertel, Delaware and Elmwood avenues, along with one on Main Street in Williamsville, will be covered by a union.
"It's really a relatively new thing to organize baristas, so this is a very groundbreaking campaign, and it's really significant," Jaz Brisack, the lead Workers United organizer in the Buffalo Spot Coffee campaign, told The Buffalo News after the vote.
But the Spot Coffee unionizing campaign was anything but unusual in one way: Three Spot employees who were involved in the unionization effort back in July were fired.
"It's typical that the response of an employer is to fire and threaten and violate the law, because there's no effect, no cost to them for violating the law" to punish workers who try to form a union, Trumka said when asked about the firing of the Spot workers. "It costs them virtually nothing."
The AFL-CIO is pushing for a change in labor laws that would make it more difficult for companies to fire union organizers, but that measure is unlikely to pass the Republican-controlled Senate.
Trumka said union organizing will pay off in the long run even if the organizers have to pay a very difficult short-term price. He said that an increase in unionization will eventually lead to an increase in wages, and an end to the decadeslong trend that has put far more wealth into the hands of the wealthiest Americans at the expense of working people.
"America's workers aren't interested in little slivers of change," Trumka said. "We're not interested in gestures, or tokens. We need action on a scale that will reverse a generation of corporate government that has rigged our economy to enrich a few powerful interests at the expense of everyone else."