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So, your workers want to unionize

The Saturday Essay
So, your workers want to unionize
By Alex Wilhelm • Issue #8 • View online
Welcome to The Saturday Essay, a relaxed weekend writing project from technology and financial journalist Alex Wilhelm.
The Saturday Essay publishes once per week, on Saturday, discussing business, economics, and politics.

Can we be honest about unions for a moment?
Corporations are generally unable to speak clearly.
If you want an example of this fact, crack open a fresh S-1 filing, read the opening lines, and then ask yourself if you can describe what the company actually does. More than half the time you won’t be able to.
Modern companies don’t sell things, they are solutions providers. They don’t avoid hiring staff to reduce their labor costs, they lean on precarious gig employment to provide flexibility. Amazon doesn’t set schedules for delivery drivers that are considered unsafe, the company is merely customer-centric. You get the idea.
Why the parade of weaselly wording? Because companies are two things at the same time. They are at once focused on generating maximum profits, and pretending that they are not.
Most American companies have decided that sounding like the raw-capitalist organizations that they are is in bad taste. So what do they do? Hire an army of PR folks, marketing denizens, and comms leaders to wrap themselves in a warm, comfortable-sounding blanket of bull.
A prime example of a company finding itself unable to speak honestly and clearly is Starbucks. How so? Instead of frontline employees, it has partners.
Partners indeed. We’ve recently seen what Starbucks thinks of its partners thanks to the company doing all that it can to clamp down on its partners simply wanting to bargain as a unit.
In my view, and perhaps I have become soft having seen my larger community treated as they have been by corporations of various stripes, if you call someone a partner you listen to them. You don’t, for example, do all that you can to crush their organizing efforts to avoid those partners from getting a larger, fairer stake in the results of their labor.
And yet that is what Starbucks is doing, following a corporate script as old as organizing, working to crush its workers’ attempts at securing better working conditions and pay inside a company worth more than $127 billion.
Modern companies are two-faced by nature; the face they show the world is one crafted for benign-neutrality, while behind the mask, more honest calculations are made.
A few recent headlines for flavor regarding how Starbucks has handled the will of its partners:
Starbucks tried all sorts of things to avoid a unionization vote from succeeding at a handful of its stores. As Reuters writes, "Starbucks repeatedly challenged aspects of the NLRB election along the way, including arguing unsuccessfully that the entire Buffalo market of about 20 cafes should all have to vote at the same time, which would have made it more difficult for the union to organize at each location.”
Hell, the company even rolled out former CEO Howard Schultz to draw parallels to the Holocaust in defense of the company’s anti-union stance. That went about as well as you might imagine.
Most of what Starbucks is doing is less headline-friendly, but still nefarious. Union reports indicate that the company’s anti-union methods include retaliatory shift scheduling, in-person surveillance, and hitting union organizers with threats to their employment.
Cut the bull
Let me help a bit. Starbucks doesn’t want unions, because they will limit its ability to hire and fire staff on whim. Unions will also boost the company’s labor costs, because it will have to pay frontline staff more. And the company would rather pay less.
That’s it. That’s the whole thing.
The idea that Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson actually wants a “direct relationship with [his] partners” is complete hogwash. He doesn’t.
What he wants is for workers to stay atomized, so that he can treat them as he wants to with no back-talk. By direct he means unilateral, and by relationship he means utter and complete control.
Partners. I can’t get the word out of my mouth. It’s more than an obfuscation. It’s a lie, and one that we reprint constantly in the media because we’re too servile to not share obvious corporate horse excrement whole-cloth, lest we get called biased, even if our bending-over-backwards to help companies bloviate and deflect means that we’re more choosing a side than not.
The current nationwide unionization push is making all sorts of companies nervous. Kellogg was sufficiently stubborn to torch billions in brand value rather than treat its staff as anything other than serfs. John Deere was apparently willing to kick its own shins until they bled rather than willingly listen to its staff, and Amazon, oh Amazon.
Amazon is perhaps the pinnacle of modern corporate horsepucky. It is so customer focused that it is willing to let its staff endure mortal danger. Recall when Amazon became incensed when it was reported that its drivers had to piss in bottles due to how the company was handling their schedules and delivery expectations? It had to apologize for that one because it was 100% true.
But I wonder if the company will be able to whoopsie its way out of policies that recently appeared to lead to employee deaths. What happened? Expectation that workers keep at it despite tornado warnings. And threatening drivers that if they stopped delivering despite tornado warnings they would be fired.
A union might be able to help here. So, naturally, Amazon is virulently anti-union. Why? The same reasons as we saw with Starbucks. Workers collectivized are harder to exploit, and workers atomized are easier to churn through.
A headline sampling, for fun:
The list goes on and on.
There’s good news out there. According to the Pew Research Center, “55% of U.S. adults say labor unions have a positive effect on the way things are going in the country.” But while that number is holding steady in recent years, actual union levels are still in decline. Again according to Pew, “[i]n 2020, 10.8% of wage and salary workers ages 16 and older belonged to a labor union, down from 13.4% in 2000[.]”
This is the trend that Starbucks, Kelloggs, John Deere, and Amazon want to see continue. Because they don’t want to pay more, or more fairly, for labor.
It’s all pretty gross and nasty, but remember to look to the language when you can. Observe when a company is willing to talk to you out of one side of its mouth, but then run an entirely different script when it doesn’t think you are able to listen.
And then treat those companies as they do their workers: fungible, and something to be treated with utter disregard whenever possible.
Did you enjoy this issue?
Alex Wilhelm

A weekly essay digging into economics, startups, and fun. Written by Alex Wilhelm, a medium-quality nerd and S-1 fanatic.

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