How Corporations Crush New Unions
Portside Date:
Author: Steven Greenhouse
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The New Republic

The spacious second-floor conference room at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, was an unlikely place for labor and management to face off, but there they were: eight Trader Joe’s workers at one row of tables, a Trader Joe’s official and two lawyers for the company at another. On the walls hung student paintings of brilliant, swirling flowers. They did little to cheer the atmosphere.

Three months earlier, in July 2022, employees at a Trader Joe’s in Hadley, four miles from Smith, had voted to become the nation’s first unionized TJ’s, and now they were finally—and nervously—plunging into the bargaining process, in the hope of winning higher pay, better retirement benefits, and safer working conditions. Outside the conference center, several pro-union students carried signs saying “RESPECT WORKERS.” Inside, the workers turned negotiators admittedly felt uncomfortable; unlike the company’s high-paid Morgan Lewis attorneys, they were rookies at collective bargaining.

The union members opened the discussion. They complained about low pay, about the company moving too slowly to deal with employees who harassed co-workers, about a manager who used hourly workers to serve as “human shields” when confronting troublesome customers. Sarah Beth Ryther, who works in Minneapolis at the nation’s second unionized Trader Joe’s, described management’s “deep and insidious” disrespect toward the union. Managers, she said, boasted of Trader Joe’s as a “golden place to work” and belittled the union by asking over and over why people were complaining. “The ugly subtext of this question is, ‘Who are we to want more, who are we to dream of a better life?’”

As Ryther spoke, tensions grew. She criticized a manager for writing up a single mother who had arrived late to her shift because of complications caring for her 2-year-old. She talked of a co-worker who was injured when one of the store’s ceiling tiles fell on his head.

Ultimately, “a Morgan Lewis lawyer called me emotional,” Ryther said in an interview. The accusation may have been “sexist,” she continued, but it was true. “Why wouldn’t we be emotional when we’re talking about our livelihoods? They say we don’t understand what we’re doing, that our concerns and our values are not in line with something Trader Joe’s would ever agree to, and that what we’re saying is preposterous. That has been the general attitude from day one.”

Increasing the workers’ ire, the TJ’s representatives put forward no contract proposals.

That first negotiating session was more than a year ago, and TJ’s workers told me they feel hardly any closer to reaching a first contract today than they did then. The workers maintained that Trader Joe’s lawyers—who they say make $800 or $1,000 an hour—are condescending at best. When their independent union, Trader Joe’s United, proposed a $30 starting wage—not just a living wage, the workers said, but a wage to enable them to thrive, to enjoy bread and roses too, as the saying goes—the company’s negotiators “laughed at us,” Ryther said.

It’s absurd, the workers contend, that in the nearly a year and a half since the first TJ’s unionized, the two sides still haven’t reached agreement on even one economic issue, such as minimum hourly pay or the number of paid sick days. “We feel strongly that they’re not bargaining in good faith,” said Maeg Yosef, a worker in the Hadley store. “They’re absolutely trying to wear us down.”

Yosef, Ryther, and several other TJ’s workers have devoted dozens of unpaid hours to preparing for and attending bargaining sessions—hours they could have spent with their loved ones or pursuing their artistic interests or on the job earning money. At times during the eight-hour negotiating sessions, progress was so slow, and there was so much protracted debate about minuscule points that they felt like screaming. “It’s absolutely exhausting,” Ryther told me. “My brain is fried afterward.”

These Trader Joe’s employees have discovered what the workers who unionized Starbucks, Amazon, Apple, and REI facilities over the past two years have also discovered: When nonunion workers are eager to get a union contract, they have to climb not just one but two often forbidding mountains. First, they must win a unionization drive, frequently against a fiercely anti-union company; and second, often harder and taking far longer, they need to clinch a first contract.

Climbing this second mountain is much harder than many workers realize. The first Starbucks store unionized in December 2021 (in Buffalo, New York); the first REI store in March 2022 (in Manhattan); the first Amazon warehouse in April 2022 (on Staten Island); the first Apple Store in June 2022 (in Towson, Maryland). Yet workers from all four companies, much like Trader Joe’s workers, say a first contract remains miles away.

The research confirms they are not alone. In a 2009 study of five years of union elections across the United States, Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University, found that slightly more than half of unionized workplaces (52 percent) didn’t reach a contract within a year of first unionizing. More than one-third (37 percent) had no contract after two years, and 30 percent still had no contract after three years.

Over the decades, the delays have gotten dramatically worse. A recent survey by Bloomberg Law found that between 2005 and 2007, the average or mean amount of time it took to reach a first contract after unionizing was 364 days; by 2022, it had climbed to 565 days.

“The short answer is that it’s getting longer to reach a first contract,” said John-Paul Ferguson, a professor of management at Montreal’s McGill University who did a pioneering study on the subject. There are numerous reasons for this. Many companies “have an entire new generation of managers who have no experience of collective bargaining,” Ferguson pointed out. And, Ferguson and other labor relations experts say, management-side law firms like Morgan Lewis have gotten far more adept at dragging out the process. Adding to the delays is the resistance from high-profile corporate leaders, such as Jeff Bezos at Amazon and Howard Schultz at Starbucks, who resent the ways a union contract—by giving workers a voice and written rules about how the company is run—would limit management’s autonomy.

But perhaps most important is the fact that corporations have huge incentives to avoid agreeing to a first contract, said John Logan, chair of the labor studies department at San Francisco State University. “Many companies have for years taken the position that losing a unionization election is just round one, and they haven’t really lost until they sign a contract,” said Logan, one of the nation’s leading academic experts on what corporate America calls “union-avoidance” strategies. “They want to send a signal to workers who are thinking of unionizing that even if you win a unionization election, you’re not going to win.”

As workers at these newly unionized companies watch negotiations drag on month after month, they’ve also seen long-established unions at UPS, Ford, General Motors, Kaiser Permanente, and other employers win impressive contracts with hefty raises. Unfortunately, there are few options available for workers facing a company’s refusal to bargain in good faith. “There’s essentially nothing under labor law that forces employers to bargain,” Bronfenbrenner said, “and the penalties … are usually just a posting on the bulletin board  For employers, that is less than a slap on the wrist.” Logan agreed. “The incentives not to negotiate, not to engage in real good-faith bargaining, are just too great, because reaching a good contract will obviously provide enormous incentives for workers in their nonunion stores to organize.” 


As a student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Yosef eagerly seized the opportunity to design her own major, a mixture of visual art, writing, social justice, and education. While at UMass, she worked at the student-run grocery cooperative, and after graduation, because of that experience, she thought it made sense to apply at a nearby Trader Joe’s. The job, she figured, would help her make ends meet while pursuing her artistic interests. Thin and muscular, with a big smile and long, dirty-blonde hair sometimes done in a bold comb-over, Yosef joined the team of artists at her store and went on to make many of its customized signs.

She enjoyed working there. “I love the people I work with,” she told me. “I like the physical work. I like talking to customers.” But over time, she said, she became “increasingly disillusioned.” Yosef and many coworkers grew upset that TJ’s was gradually cutting benefits, and they became especially upset when they learned that the company was cutting its contributions to employee 401(k)s “from a guaranteed 10 percent [of pay] to you don’t know what they’ll be.”

Their dismay—coupled with the news of historic union victories at Starbucks and Amazon—spurred Yosef and several courageous co-workers to launch the union drive in Hadley. But just as Starbucks and Amazon did, Trader Joe’s mounted an intensive anti-union effort.

“There was so much misinformation and fearmongering from management,” Yosef remembered. “There were one-on-one conversations between managers and crew members who were pulled outside to a picnic table. They said, ‘Do you know you won’t get a raise until you get a contract? You won’t get a 401(k) contribution until you get a first contract.’ Some of these things really unsettled people.”

If the Hadley workers were enthusiastic about unionizing, they felt trepidation, too. They reassured themselves by talking about how they were “stronger together,” Yosef said. “They can’t fire us all if we stick together.”

On July 28, 2022, the Hadley workers voted 45 to 31 to unionize.

Ryther pursued a similar course. A native of St. Paul, she took a job at a Trader Joe’s in Minneapolis after getting a master’s in fine arts at the University of California, Irvine. “I heard that Trader Joe’s was a great place to work for people who are creative,” said the dark-haired, personable 33-year-old, who had won a creative writing prize and an accompanying grant to help write a novel.

“It was immediately the craziest place I ever worked,” she told me. There were safety problems (workers sometimes got injured lifting things), nasty spats with managers, and a co-worker who sexually harassed several female employees. “There was an individual with a gunshot wound in the head who walked into the store one day, and I was the first responder,” Ryther said. “They didn’t even close the store. That galvanized me personally.”

Explaining why so many workers pulled together to form a union, she said, “Here was a community of workers that wanted to make their daily life better, and again and again, we came up against every single thing you can think of that makes our lives as low-wage workers difficult.”

On August 12, 2022, the Minneapolis workers also voted to unionize. It was a 555 landslide.

When negotiations with TJ’s finally began, Yosef and Ryther quickly saw that the going would be slow. The members of Trader Joe’s United called for minimum hourly pay of $30, a guaranteed percentage contribution toward their 401(k)s, more paid time off, fewer obstacles to qualifying for health coverage, and protections from getting kicked off coverage when a worker’s weekly hours were cut. The two sides reached tentative agreements on several minor issues like jury duty, “but we didn’t have a lot of movement on issues that were important to crew members,” Yosef said.

TJ’s counteroffer on health insurance was particularly infuriating. “They wanted to give us a lump sum so that we could each individually search for health care in the open market, making it as difficult as possible for us to get health coverage,” Ryther said. “Every single thing they have proposed has been to make it as unsavory as possible to be in a unionized store.”

Trader Joe’s did not respond to four emails I sent with questions about the contract talks. In communications with employees on the company’s internal site, the company has said it “remains committed to treating all of its Crew Members fairly and bargaining in good faith.”

Ryther argued, however, that Trader Joe’s was impeding progress by not sending an executive knowledgeable about store operations to the bargaining sessions. As an example, she described a common issue at her Minneapolis store. Drug addicts often enter, raising fears among employees of people collapsing inside from overdoses. Workers argued that their contract needed to include safety protocols and training requirements so that workers know how to use Narcan, an opioid overdose treatment. TJ’s negotiators didn’t understand that need, Ryther said.

The workers also complained about the lawyers’ tactics and theatrics. At times, the two sides would of course differ about proposals, and then, the workers said, the Morgan Lewis lawyers often walked out to caucus. “We would spend hours and hours over minutiae,” Ryther said, “and there would be hours and hours where the Morgan Lewis lawyers would refuse to enter the room about some small issue.”

Between November 2022 and April 2023, the two sides held around 10 negotiating sessions, but from April to October, TJ’s declined to hold any bargaining sessions if the union insisted on letting workers join over Zoom, a condition the union felt strongly about because some TJ’s workers didn’t have the time or money to attend sessions. Some sessions were held in Hadley, some in Minneapolis, and one was held in Oakland, California, where workers at a TJ’s voted 75 to 53 to unionize in April 2023.

The disparate locations meant that workers who frequently make less than $600 a week sometimes had to pay out of their own pockets to fly to negotiations in other states. “Initially, I paid a lot on my own credit card,” Yosef said. In recent months, the TJ’s workers have gotten several unions and outside groups to help finance their travel. Nonetheless, the workers told me they feel stretched thin by all the time and money spent and all the paid working hours forgone to participate in the bargaining.

This, too, is a tactic: Labor experts say companies often seek to frustrate and wear down union negotiators to such a degree that workers, in order to finally bring excruciatingly long negotiations to a close, end up settling for considerably less than they had originally sought.

Yosef described, for instance, exasperating months of debate with TJ’s over whether workers could wear a pronoun pin bigger than one inch in diameter. She was annoyed that the company had sued the union for trademark infringement for selling union buttons, bags, and mugs that have the retailer’s name on them. “This seems frivolous,” Yosef said. “It takes up a lot of time and energy to deal with that.”

“They are a multibillion company, and we’re a scrappy young union,” she added. “They’re absolutely trying to wear us down and deplete our resources.”


Anti-union companies often have an ulterior motive in dragging out negotiations: They know that once a full year elapses after workers first vote to unionize, workers can petition to decertify (or vote out) the union. A corporation’s lawyers are certainly aware that if a new union fails within a year to reach a first contract that delivers better pay and benefits, frustrated workers may start pushing to decertify.

Whether or not Starbucks and its lawyers have decertification in mind, the company has moved with spectacular slowness and, like Trader Joe’s, resisted bargaining over Zoom. For nearly two years, the company failed to make a single counterproposal to the union’s many proposals. For nearly a year and a half, it also failed to put forth any of its own proposals.

Until recently, Liz Duran was a barista at one of Starbucks’s flagship operations, the sprawling Reserve Roastery in Seattle, the company’s hometown, but she was suddenly fired in late October—a move she believes was illegal retaliation for her outspoken pro-union activities. When Duran was hired by the roastery two years ago, she wasn’t thinking about labor unions; she was focused on succeeding in the restaurant industry. “I liked a lot of things about the company, and I quickly fell in love with the place,” she told me. The roastery, with its gleaming metal pipes and large, hand-hammered copper cask, is in a handsome building dating from the 1920s.

Duran was only passingly involved in the early efforts to unionize the roastery. But she eventually grew so angry about what managers were telling baristas at the company’s captive-audience meetings that she plunged in.

“They were just lying to us, misinforming us,” she said. “They told people: ‘Oh, you know there’s a chance you could lose your benefits, you might not be able to have health care, they could take away your college benefits if you unionize.’ That scared a lot of people. That’s bad faith for them to threaten to take away things we already have.”

Incensed about Starbucks’s union-busting efforts, Duran—whose mother and father long belonged to unions in their jobs working for Washington’s state government—“went into high gear,” she said. “I tried to reassure people.”

Sometimes, Duran recounted, managers tried to intimidate workers. “I had a manager say, ‘You’re going up against a multibillion company. You’re just a handful of baristas. What do you think you’re going to accomplish?’”

That handful of baristas is actually more than 9,000 baristas at more than 360 stores where workers have voted to unionize. Their union held its first bargaining session with Starbucks in January 2022, just weeks after baristas at two Buffalo cafés had led the way by unionizing their locations. But as dozens of other cafés unionized as well, Starbucks failed to respond for months to requests to bargain, a union official said. (Starbucks has insisted on bargaining individual contracts with each unionized store—a hugely time-consuming strategy for workers and, according to one union official, a highly lucrative approach for Starbucks’s law firm.)

When the union called for an arrangement in which some workers would meet face-to-face with Starbucks’s negotiators, while other workers, who were unable to afford the money or time to attend in person, used Zoom to watch, Starbucks all but shut down negotiations nationwide by refusing to participate. Early on, Starbucks had allowed Zoom, but then it reversed course. The company said it wouldn’t join hybrid sessions because it feared that workers would record the negotiations and then use parts of those recordings on social media to embarrass and pressure the company. A union official insisted that no workers have recorded or plan to record the sessions.

In December 2022, the National Labor Relations Board filed a complaint against the company, saying it failed to bargain in good faith with 21 stores in the Pacific Northwest. Then, last April, the labor board filed a nationwide complaint that said Starbucks had illegally “failed and refused” to bargain at 144 stores across the United States. As for the first two upstate New York stores that unionized, the NLRB said Starbucks had “bargained with no intention of reaching agreement,” and behaved in ways “demeaning and otherwise undermining the union’s chosen representatives.”

In September in Seattle, an NLRB judge began a high-stakes trial, expected to last at least five months, that will determine whether Starbucks failed to bargain in good faith by refusing to do hybrid bargaining. After the trial began, Duran told the local media outside the hearing, “It shouldn’t take a year and a half to get to the table just because they don’t like the way that we’ve all decided that we want to bargain with the company.”

Starbucks has repeatedly maintained that it is bargaining in good faith. “Starbucks has approached bargaining with consistency and a sincere desire to progress negotiations for partners at every single store represented by a union,” Starbucks’s senior vice president of partner resources, May Jensen, said in a statement. (Starbucks calls its employees “partners.”)

Many baristas scoff at this assertion, just as many deride the company’s repeated claims that it has never broken the law when battling against the union—despite the rulings by four NLRB members, three federal appellate judges, two federal district judges, and 17 administrative law judges, who have issued a total of 44 decisions finding that Starbucks has violated the law by, for instance, closing a store because it had unionized. Not only that, but various judges have ruled that Starbucks has unlawfully fired 36 baristas in retaliation for supporting the union. In mid-December, the NLRB filed a​ highly unusual complaint that accused Starbucks of unlawfully shutting 23 stores to suppress pro-union activity; it sought an order to force Starbucks to reopen them.

“I’m sure their official position is they intend to bargain and reach a contract,” Duran said. But “when they say they’re bargaining in good faith, I ask them, ‘Where? Give me one example.’ They can’t find an example.”

Andrew Trull, a Starbucks spokesperson, said the company “remains focused on supporting all partners and on progressing negotiations at every store where partners have elected union representation.”

Duran has been less involved in the contract talks than in separate negotiations about helping workers affected by Starbucks’s closing of several cafés in Seattle. I was supposed to interview several other baristas who are very involved in the contract talks, but the union cautioned them against talking to the media before they testify at the Seattle trial. The trial judge has threatened to strike workers’ testimony from the record if they discuss their testimony with other witnesses, including in public forums like interviews with the media. A union official said that Starbucks’s law firm, Littler Mendelson, has indicated that it will likely subpoena dozens of barista negotiators to testify in the trial.

“If you’re going to hire Littler Mendelson or Morgan Lewis, part of their playbook is to wear people down and cause the situation to move toward a decertification,” said Sandy Pope, director of bargaining for the Office and Professional Employees International Union. Starbucks boasts that workers at more than a dozen Starbucks have petitioned for decertification votes, but the NLRB has moved to block several petitions; one NLRB regional director said that the many charges accusing Starbucks of unlawful firings, threats, and retaliation “irrevocably taint the [decertification] petition and any related election.”

Daisy Pitkin, field director of the Starbucks unionization campaign, sees another important reason many companies resist first contracts. “What really matters isn’t just winning a union election—that isn’t creating sustained power with a company,” she said. “Sustained power is a structure to turn the collective will of workers into concrete gains, and to do that, one must codify those gains into a union contract.”

When companies drag out negotiations because they hope workers will decertify, they are often motivated by an even deeper goal: They know that if they sign a first contract that includes important gains for workers, then workers at other stores and locations—indeed workers throughout the company—will be emboldened to unionize as well. And when a company prevents a first contract, a union is far weaker—unable to collect dues and hampered in its ability to bring others into the fold.

On a Saturday afternoon in September, a busy time for shopping, more than 60 workers at the REI store in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan staged an unusual walkout, effectively closing the store. They were angry not only because REI had just cut the pay of many SoHo workers by an average of $2 per hour but also because they still didn’t have a contract after having become the nation’s first unionized REI 18 months earlier, when they joined the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union.

In 2022, REI gave raises to workers at all its stores except the SoHo store, but in December of that year, after workers protested, the company reached a six-month agreement that gave the SoHo workers that raise in exchange for a promise not to strike. After the six months elapsed, REI rescinded the raise for the SoHo workers. Around that time, it hired Morgan Lewis to replace a less aggressively anti-union law firm. The SoHo workers were soon complaining that with Morgan Lewis at the table, the pace of bargaining had slowed.

“Negotiations have been really difficult,” Graham Gale, a bike and ski technician, told me. “They give us back our proposal, and they’ve completely crossed out all the things we presented.” Their aim, Gale said, is to make members of the bargaining committee “get burned out and ultimately quit.” The Morgan Lewis lawyers “know they’re making money while they’re trying to wear us down,” Gale went on. “They don’t have an incentive to move on things because the longer it takes, the more they get paid.”

Carlos Angel Barajas, an REI sales specialist who serves on the union’s bargaining committee, put it thus: If someone needed to use a pencil at the negotiations, there would first be a 30-minute dispute about the color of the pencil. Barajas, who became an REI member right after high school, when he was an avid rock climber, is dismayed by the behavior of a company he has long loved. “It feels like a betrayal,” he said. “We feel not just unheard after we express our concerns and our needs, but we often feel dismissed.”

“I’m disgusted,” Barajas added, “that a lawyer who is making more in an hour than I make in a whole paycheck is telling me why I shouldn’t get some raise or benefit that would help me survive.”

In a statement, REI said it’s typical to take at least 19 months to hammer out a first contract. “Negotiating a first collective bargaining agreement is a lengthy process,” a spokesperson said. “We are engaged in good faith bargaining with stores that have chosen union representation and will continue to participate fully in the negotiating process.” Thus far, eight REI stores have unionized; none has a contract.

San Francisco State’s Logan said it shouldn’t be typical to take more than a year and a half to reach a first contract. In many other advanced industrial countries, he said, it takes just three or four months.

Christian Smalls, who led the Amazon Labor Union’s landmark effort to unionize 8,300 workers at an Amazon warehouse on Staten Island, said that zero progress had been made toward negotiating a first contract since the union won on April 1, 2022. No bargaining sessions have been held. Smalls maintained that Amazon had sought to avoid bargaining by continuing to appeal the legitimacy of the union’s more than 500-vote victory. “Of course they’re delaying,” Smalls said. “That’s everybody’s strategy. Amazon doesn’t want a union in any part of America.”

Amazon has raised more than two dozen objections to the union’s victory, asserting that Smalls and other organizers illegally coerced and misled workers and claiming that the NLRB improperly tilted in favor of the union. After losing an early round in the litigation, Amazon has continued its appeals. “Both the NLRB and the [Amazon Labor Union] improperly influenced the outcome, and we don’t believe it represents what the majority of our team wants,” said Mary Kate Paradis, an Amazon spokeswoman. “As a company, we don’t think unions are the best answer for our employees.”

One reason Amazon is reluctant to reach a contract is it knows that the thousands of unionized workers on Staten Island won’t pay any union dues until they have a contract. Until it can collect dues money, labor experts note, the independent Amazon Labor Union will be impoverished; but with dues from 8,000-plus workers, it would be far stronger—and in theory, have the resources to begin campaigns at other Amazon facilities.

At the first Apple Store that unionized—in Towson, Maryland—there is also dismay about it taking far more than a year to reach a first contract. Union negotiators say they’ve encountered a peculiar and particularly frustrating obstacle. “They’re the most conceited company I’ve ever dealt with. They don’t think they need any outside ideas,” said Jay Wadleigh, a business representative with the machinists’ union, the union the Towson workers voted to join. “They think they have all the answers.”

After the union presents its proposals, Wadleigh said, Apple’s negotiators respond, “We’re sticking with Apple’s policies on this.” They act like a cult, he added, as if they’re a perfect company that doesn’t need to change anything. “I told them if everything worked so well at Apple, the workers wouldn’t have formed a union.”

The negotiations with Apple have reached tentative agreements on dozens of topics, including grievance procedures, probation periods, and shop stewards—but there’s been little agreement on economic issues. The workers acknowledge that Apple has good benefits, but they say changes are needed to improve their work-life balance.

According to Wadleigh, the pace of negotiations has sped up since Apple hired a Walgreens executive to run negotiations, replacing attorneys from the Seyfarth Shaw law firm. “I honestly don’t think they want to be compared with Starbucks or Amazon,” he said.

In a statement, Apple said it worked hard to provide an “excellent experience” for its retail workers: “We’re proud to provide them with industry leading compensation and exceptional benefits. As always, we continue to engage with the union representing our team in Towson respectfully and in good faith.”


Do the workers confronting so many inventive—and infuriating—ways of prolonging negotiations have any recourse? The surest solution, if not the easiest, would be to change the law. Labor experts say there is a simple legislative fix to reaching first contracts more quickly. The Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which the House passed in 2021, states that if no first contract is reached within 90 days after negotiations begin, either side can request mediation. If mediation doesn’t succeed within 30 days, they are to select a three-person arbitration panel that will decide the terms of a two-year-long first contract. President Joe Biden supports the PRO Act, but it died in the Senate because it couldn’t get the 60 votes necessary to overcome a Republican filibuster. If passed, the law would greatly speed up negotiations, Bronfenbrenner predicted, because corporations are usually eager to avoid settling union contracts through arbitration. Facing that prospect, companies often get serious about bargaining. The approach has worked elsewhere: Several Canadian provinces have legislation that calls for first-contract arbitration.

In its accusations that Starbucks and Amazon have refused to bargain in good faith, the NLRB has shown some frustration with employers that are slow to agree to a first contract. Jennifer ­Abruzzo, the labor board’s general counsel, has proposed a powerful way to turn up the pressure on companies. The NLRB, she argues, should overturn the 1970 Ex-Cell-O decision, in which the labor board ruled that it can’t impose financial penalties on employers that refuse to bargain in good faith. Abruzzo wants the board to adopt a new rule holding that when companies don’t bargain in good faith, they can be required to “make employees whole with monetary relief for the lost opportunity to make gains through the collective bargaining process.” Such monetary relief could mean, for instance, paying out money that workers would have received as raises to keep up with the past two years of inflation.

There are also potent nonlegislative methods available to persuade companies to move faster. Ultimately, Cornell’s Bronfenbrenner said, you “have to find a way that costs the company more not to settle than to settle”—for example, pressuring investors or blocking a company’s expansion plans or interfering with its supply chain. “Unions might have to do all of that,” she suggested, “before companies come seriously to the table.”

Along these lines, more and more worker advocates have called for a nationwide boycott of Starbucks to pressure it to speed up efforts to reach a contract. Marshall Ganz worked as the United Farm Workers’ organizing director under Cesar Chavez when that union was carrying out a nationwide grape boycott that ultimately forced growers to reach a contract in 1970; he now teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He said a Starbucks boycott would be a good idea, “but it would take a lot of work.” He argued that it would also be helpful if students tried to drive Starbucks off their campuses across the United States, as Cornell has done. “That would be a hell of a campaign,” Ganz said. “There’s a lot of leverage there.”

Officials from the Starbucks workers union, Workers United, declined to say whether they would call for a boycott, although they did not shy from assailing the negotiations’ glacial pace. “Time is a weapon to try to defeat unions’ progress in organizing and make workers feel that the process is futile,” said Lynne Fox, president of Workers United. “Our union and Starbucks workers are not going to back down. We will win a contract.”

Hurt by the talk of a boycott and by a mid-November walkout at more than 200 locations, Starbucks wrote to the union on December 8, saying it wanted to resume negotiations. The letter appeared to suggest, however, that the company still intended to reject hybrid negotiations—the reason talks broke down in the first place. One longtime barista told me she thought it was merely PR.

As Trader Joe’s workers continue their fight for a first contract, Sarah Beth Ryther urges workers not to get demoralized. “Certainly a contract is our ultimate goal,” she said. “However, with a union, we have tiny wins in our store every day.” Before the store unionized, it was often scary for employees to talk to their bosses, but that has changed. Through the union, the workers have created online forums to discuss problems and how to take action. Union representatives can ask for meetings with management on behalf of members. “Before, we were at the mercy of a bad manager, and we had to deal with that every single day. Now we can file unfair labor practice charges,” Ryther said. “But more important, now we can stand up together.”  

Steven Greenhouse, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, covered labor for The New York Times for 19 years and is the author of Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor.

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