With a clear shift to workers taking back their voices following COVID-19, unionizing appears to be on the rise and on the forefront. Not just in New York where, for example, Amazon workers just voted to form a union, but also in Richmond, where last month five area Starbucks voted to unionize.
Prior to initiating the campaign, the employees would joke about forming a union, according to J. Fletcher, a shift supervisor who works at the Starbucks at Huguenot Village Shopping Center in Chesterfield County and who was also a union organizer. He spoke to me recently while I was a guest host for a news program on WRVA radio.
Fletcher said he and his colleagues would be at work and things would not go their way and they mused about unionizing. When Richmond workers saw the Starbucks in Buffalo, N.Y., vote to unionize, Fletcher and others contacted Workers United.
The petition and vote followed.
Fletcher said problems at the company were exacerbated with the pandemic when the store had to keep adjusting policies for face masks and indoor seating. Fletcher recalled that they would be short two to three people, but the business didn’t stop. He and his colleagues asked for help, but he said management didn’t listen, and this led the employees to consider how to make it better.
When asked what he and his colleagues hoped to accomplish with the union, Fletcher reiterated the theme of listening. He believes the petition could have been prevented if Starbucks management listened and responded better to the needs and concerns of his colleagues.
Fletcher said, for example, management ignored them when the employees said they could not meet certain metrics due to staffing. They were told it was their fault, and the staffing was fine, he said.
The employees have also sought to increase their pay, and feel Starbucks is behind the trend of $15 per hour. He said baristas start in the $12 per hour range.
The employees are also seeking seniority pay and plan to ask for a turnaround clause. He recalled situations where an employee might leave at 9:30 p.m. and have to return at 4:30 a.m.
Fletcher hopes Starbucks management will negotiate and bargain in good faith in entering into a contract, but he has concerns over how Starbucks has reacted to the petition. He said he was recently told he needed to change his attitude, a response from management that he feels was because he was talking to the media.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., visited one of the Starbucks stores to show his support for the union. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., attended and spoke at Unity Fest, an event held in Richmond supporting unionization.
Employers need to prioritize creating an employee-centric environment that listens to the needs of employees and addresses them in a transparent manner. In fact, employers should expect candidates for employment to ask employers to name something that was changed in the work environment based on an employee’s recommendation.
Employees want to work for organizations where they can be seen, heard and valued.
To the extent there are legitimate barriers to meeting reasonable employee requests, employers should be transparent and collaborative about seeking mutually amenable solutions. Employees are in the trenches and have a lot of good suggestions.
There are some things that are non-negotiable — a civil and respectful workplace, fair pay (to include overtime pay consistent with federal and state law) and positive attitudes. There is a difference between expressing legitimate concerns about the work environment, and spreading toxicity and negativity.
Unfortunately, union campaigns are unavoidably divisive and acrimonious. Leaders and managers need to create the positive work experience up-front to prevent employees from even considering unionizing.