The key to worker power in America? Let a thousand Chris Smalls bloom

In recent days, Americans have witnessed developments on the labor front that could have scarcely been imagined just a few years ago. There was the landmark union victory at Amazon’s 8,300-employee fulfillment center on Staten Island – at a corporation that many thought impossible to unionize. Then there’s the flood of union wins at another iconic company, Starbucks, with the union victorious in 57 of 64 elections at Starbucks cafes, an extraordinarily high winning percentage. What’s more, baristas have petitioned for union votes at nearly 200 more Starbucks, notwithstanding CEO Howard Schultz’s fierce efforts to squelch the union drive.

At Grinnell College in Iowa, undergraduate workers voted overwhelmingly, 327 to 6, to form the nation’s first wall-to-wall undergraduate workers union, representing everyone from dining hall workers to research assistants to library aides. At Dartmouth, student dining hall workers voted 52-0 to unionize. Workers at an REI store in Manhattan voted in favor of unionizing in an 88-14 landslide, becoming the first unionize REI vote. And now tech giant Apple is facing the first-ever union drive at its retail stores.

In my 25 years writing about labor, I’ve never seen so much excitement about unions. For years, America’s labor leaders have struggled to figure out how to reverse the union movement’s decades-long decline, but to no avail. But thanks to two important, often unappreciated trends, unions have the best opportunity in decades to halt their slide.

First, young workers are showing extraordinary enthusiasm about unions. Second, workers have embraced a long-neglected strategy, called self-organizing or bottom-up organizing that’s proving highly successful. With self-organizing, employees at a workplace, dissatisfied with their pay and working conditions, conclude that unionizing is a smart way to improve matters (and they’re often doing that with little or no help from large, established unions).

Among young Americans there’s an undeniable surge of interest in unions. A study by professors at MIT and Columbia found that 74% of Americans aged 18 to 24 say they would vote to join a union if they could. This helps explain the recent landslide votes to unionize at many Starbucks, including tallies of 20-0, 17-0, 23-1 and 33-2. This also helps explain the victory at Amazon’s mammoth warehouse on Staten Island, where many key organizers were Amazon workers in their twenties. (The union lost, however, at a smaller Amazon sorting center on Staten Island). All this youthful excitement has fueled the unionization wave among thousands of grad student workers and adjunct professors as well as workers at tech companies, art museums, digital news sites, political campaigns and nonprofits like the Audubon Society and Friends of the Earth.

Young workers are flocking to unions for numerous reasons. Many are overwhelmed by student debt and fast-rising housing costs. Many feel they’re being paid far less than they deserve at a time when corporate profits have soared. Many are frustrated to be told they will be the first generation in US history to do worse economically than their parents. Many have been inspired by Bernie Sanders, the Fight for $15, Black Lives Matter and/or #MeToo, and they’re raring to fight for a better world – and workplace.

Unlike their parents and grandparents, today’s young workers came of age long after the era of horrendous Teamster and Longshoremen corruption that turned off so many Americans to unions. Remember the movie On the Waterfront? Today’s young workers also came of age after Ronald Reagan defeated the 1981 air traffic controllers’ strike and fired more than 11,000 of them – moves that made many workers nervous about unions. Today’s young workers have a more upbeat attitude about unions.

The current burst of self-organizing also makes this an unusually promising moment for labor. Christian Smalls, the fired Amazon worker who spearheaded the winning drive on Staten Island, led a classic self-organizing effort – he co-founded a new, independent union, used GoFundMe to raise the $120,000 spent on the campaign, and relied on 15 Amazon workers as the main organizers.

The self-organizing we’ve seen at Amazon and Starbucks has some big advantages over traditional organizing drives run by paid union staffers. Self-organizing excites workers because they see that it’s led by their co-workers, people they know (rather than by union staffers they don’t know). Self-organizing effectively neutralizes one of corporate America’s favorite anti-union arguments – that unions are an outside third party. Workers who self-organize have a powerful response: “How can you say we’re outsiders? We work here. We know the problems workers face here.” In addition, workers who lead self-organizing efforts do not face a major obstacle to most unionization drives: unlike paid union staff organizers, they can’t be barred from company property – they work there and can easily talk up the union with their co-workers.

Today’s youth-fueled union drives are the most promising thing to come along for labor in years, but they often lack resources. These union drives badly need more money and lawyers not just to help them succeed against intense anti-union efforts, but to go to scale across the US – and perhaps try to spread unionization fever from Starbucks to McDonalds, Chipotle and other fast-food companies and from Amazon to Walmart, Target and other retailers.

This is a critical opportunity – and moment – for America’s labor leaders. For today’s unionization surge to become a lasting, powerful movement that transforms decades of decline into increased membership and power, labor leaders will need to step up and provide money, lots of it, to help the current efforts succeed and spread.

Christian Smalls says workers at 100 other Amazon facilities have contacted him to say that they, too, want to unionize. But it will take money to fertilize those efforts and to send Smalls and his fellow organizers to dozens of other Amazon warehouses to explain how to do successful self-organizing. Those campaigns will also need lawyers to file the paperwork to request union elections and to lodge complaints with the government if and when companies fire union supporters illegally.

Many labor leaders might hesitate to back today’s burst of self-organizing because they won’t control those efforts and won’t get the members and the dues money resulting from them. But if labor leaders are serious about ending decades of decline and about strengthening unions to win a better deal for workers, they need to jettison their old-style thinking and provide money and lawyers to help today’s union surge grow and then grow some more. If they don’t do this, it will show that all their talk about reversing labor’s decline is empty rhetoric.

With their energy and idealism, the kids – the young workers – are all right. But with their inertia and lack of imagination, many of today’s older unions seem inexplicably reluctant to seize – and build on – this promising moment for labor.

Labor’s hot hand is with young workers and self-organized shops. Union leaders need to take note, adjust their model and get on board.

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