Berkeley restaurants

Chipotle and REI add to store-by-store union wins

Workers at a Chipotle outlet in Lansing, Michigan, and an REI in Berkeley, Calif., voted to unionize this week. They are the latest among hundreds of restaurants and individual retail stores that have successfully organized this year.

More than 200 Starbucks are now unionized across the country along with two Trader Joe’s and an Apple store. The store-by-store approach creates a constant drumbeat of union activity, although each of these initiatives involves a relatively small number of workers: about a dozen at Lansing Chipotle and a hundred at REI Berkeley.

This contrasts with the American labor movement of the 1930s and 1940s, when unions gathered millions of members by organizing large industrial workplaces like factories and auto factories.

Tobias Higbie, a labor historian at the University of California, Los Angeles, said it was a different time. The economy was based more on manufacturing and public policies were more favorable to unions.

“Labour law over the past 40 years has really taken the opposite route,” Higbie said.

The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 made it the federal government’s official position to encourage collective bargaining, but Higbie said the law and its enforcement have been weakened over time, giving employers more power to prevent unions.

This can make organizing on a smaller scale advantageous, he added.

“It’s just easier to do,” he said, involving far fewer logistical challenges. Workers can even undertake the organization of small workplaces on their own, without the resources of a strong union. It’s also harder for employers to influence smaller groups, according to Professor Sharon Block, executive director of Harvard Law School’s Work and Life program.

Employers generally have better access to workers to make their case against unions, for example by requiring employees to attend information sessions – often called captive audience meetings – or sending emails to all staff .

But in smaller contexts, labor organizers can counter those arguments more effectively, Block said.

“The quick response is probably a big thing,” she said. “Workers can educate each other, correct misinformation, provide fuller context to information posted by the employer.”

They might also feel less inhibited in company meetings, said Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

“If you’re in a smaller environment, you probably know your boss, and it’s not as intimidating to stand up and speak up and challenge the messages that come through,” she said.

At the Minneapolis Trader Joe’s store that voted to unionize this month, organizer Sarah Beth Ryther said the close relationships between the team of about 70 people made it easier to find consensus before the company does not respond.

“We talk to each other all the time and share information,” Ryther said. “We had already had five to seven conversations with each person about what to expect.”

She said they had also learned lessons from staff at a Massachusetts store, who had hosted the previous month.

But organizing on this small scale could limit the sustainability of the movement as the economy slows, said Michael Strain, labor economist at the American Enterprise Institute.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we see an increase in unionized labor,” Strain said, “but I don’t think we’re in a period of sustained gains that will last for many years.”

He said that in sectors where small unions are proliferating – retail and restaurants – workers’ influence may only be temporary, due to pandemic-related staffing shortages. If consumer demand shifts in a weaker economy, Strain said, that leverage could drop significantly.

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