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Amazon and Starbucks Aren’t Listening to Their Workers

May 26, 2022, 8:00 AM

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz was recently caught on a video referring to unions as “some outside force” that is “desperately trying to disrupt our company.” He has described baristas’ efforts to elect union representatives as an “assault” on the company.

While Andy Jassy, Amazon CEO, has used less inflammatory language to describe his views on unions—describing them as an impediment to empowerment and agility—his company’s actions speak much more loudly about how he really feels. In the run up to votes on unionization in Staten Island, N.Y., and Alabama, Amazon ran an all-out anti-union campaign, including barraging workers with anti-union propaganda, forcing them to attend mandatory anti-union meetings and even arresting union organizers.

In the wake of the successful vote to unionize the JFK8 warehouse in Staten Island, Amazon has fired workers and vowed to fight to overturn the workers’ yes vote. The National Labor Relations Board general counsel has alleged that both companies violated the law in their quest to oppose unionization.

Most tellingly, both companies have spent millions of dollars on these campaigns to communicate with their employees their view that voting for the union would constitute an act hostile to the well-being of the company and themselves.

What these CEOs have not been doing is listening to the message that their employees are trying to send to them in these exciting union campaign—a message of hope and collaboration. They are falling into the trap of presuming that unionization would mark a negative turn in the companies’ relationship with their workers.

Unionization Doesn’t Have to Be a Zero-Sum Game

They are lazily relying on an inaccurate view of the labor-management dynamics that holds that management (on behalf of shareholders), and workers are fighting over whose interests should prevail in a zero-sum game. As a long time believer in the benefits of unionization for individual workers, our economy and democracy, I would assert that this antagonistic paradigm is always wrong.

I am fairly sure that I would not be able to convince Schultz and Jassy that workers’ desire to unionize should always be viewed as a positive. But I do think it is worth making the case that in times like now of a tight labor market, there is more reason for them to stop and listen to the message that their employees are trying to send with their union campaigns and to be open to the possibility that that message is one that can lead to a better outcome for all.

With the country at or approaching full employment and average wages for low-wage workers rising meaningfully for the first time in decades, the employees fueling the union campaigns at Amazon and Starbucks have options. As the misnamed “Great Resignation” has shown, a historically high number of workers are walking out of their jobs and finding new ones.

Bharat Ramamurti, President Biden’s deputy director of the National Economic Council, has more accurately described this time as the “Great Upgrade.” As he noted, the data shows that even low-wage workers are quitting to take new, better-paying jobs.

Earlier this month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that job openings and labor turnover was at an all-time high. For low wage workers, this recovery is giving them the power to choose their futures. While a recession may cool the hot labor market, there is reason to believe that workers who have envisioned better working conditions will not easily accept the old ways even once the recovery slows.

So, how does this churn in the labor market affect the message that Starbucks and Amazon workers are sending to Schultz and Jassy? It means that workers are communicating a commitment to these companies when so many of their low-wage peers are bailing on their employers.

Workers Who Would Rather Fight Than Switch

By choosing to unionize, Amazon and Starbucks workers are saying that even when they have a choice to go somewhere else and get more pay, better benefits and/or better working conditions, they would rather stay and fight to make their companies—and not just their own situations— better.

Collective bargaining is a mechanism that gives workers the power to have a voice in figuring out with management what will make Starbucks and Amazon places where workers will want to remain. With a labor law that so poorly protects workers who engage in organizing and management that so clearly opposes their efforts, these workers are choosing to stay and fight for their union despite knowing that the fight will be long and hard.

Both Starbucks and Amazon have a problem with employee retention. Even Schultz acknowledged upon his return to the company that turnover among baristas was too high, with most staying less than one year.

Amazon’s retention problem is even more severe. The New York Times reported that Amazon has a turnover rate of more than 150% per year—almost double that of its peers. Research shows that unionization reduces turnover. So, why won’t Schultz and Jassy listen to these workers who are trying to tell them that they want to stay in a joint project to improve their companies?

Recent union victories at these companies suggest that workers will force collaboration on these CEOs whether they like it or not. Schultz and Jassy will be doing themselves and their companies a favor if they stop listening to themselves repeating old tropes and really listen to the people who know their companies the best—their employees.

This article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., the publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.

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Sharon Block is a professor of practice and executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School. She has held high-level labor and regulatory policy positions in the Obama and Biden administrations. She previously worked for Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) on the Senate HELP Committee.