The Original Utah Starbucks Location Becomes the First to Unionize

The Cottonwood Heights Starbucks location – reported to be the first Starbucks to open in Utah – also became the first Starbucks in Utah to unionize. On June 10, 2022, employees at the Cottonwood Heights location voted 11-6 for unionization and joined more than 100 other unionized locations of Starbucks around the nation. The successful effort of the Cottonwood Heights Starbucks workers has surprised some, since Utah has the third-lowest rate of union membership of any state – only South and North Carolina are lower. Starbucks’ employees at a second location in Salt Lake City have also petitioned for a union election but have not yet voted.

Microsoft Announces it Will Not Fight Unions

On the heels of the successful union bid at the Amazon Staten Island warehouse, Microsoft became the first major tech company to announce that it will not fight unionization efforts of its employees. Microsoft President Brad Smith announced the company’s approach to unionization in a blog post and reiterated its respect of employees’ “legal right to choose whether to form or join a union” and the company’s commitment to “creative and collaborative approaches with unions when employees wish to exercise their rights and Microsoft is presented with a specific unionization proposal.” Microsoft’s announcement is said to have been influenced by its in-the-works deal to acquire the video-game publisher Activision Blizzard. A small group of workers at Activision announced their intent to unionize after Microsoft’s planned acquisition was announced. On May 23, 2022, those workers’ union vote was successful, and they became the first labor union in the video-gaming industry. Tech industry watchers are divided on whether other tech companies will follow Microsoft’s approach to unionization.

Public Approval of Labor Unions Continues to Grow

In a Gallup poll conducted in August 2021, public support of unions in the United States is at its highest point since 1965. Sixty-eight percent of Americans approved of labor unions in 2021, compared to the all-time high of 71% in 1965 and the all-time low of 48% in 2009. In contrast, a recent Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll found that 54% of Utahns approve of unions. Although the issue of unions is typically thought of as political, various surveys have shown that union support does not fall clearly on political lines. Support for unions has increased among members of all identified political affiliations. Instead, more reliable indicators of union support are age and income. People between the ages of 18-34 or with an income below $40,000 are more likely to view unions favorably than older people and those with higher incomes. What effect public approval will have remains to be seen: The Gallup poll showed that there has not been a corresponding increase in union membership, with around 7% of those polled claiming union membership. This figure is similar to those of recent years. We will await further data to see if union membership increases with public opinion!

Will Unionization Efforts in the Private Sector Continue to Increase?

Without dispute, a new trend in the number of worker groups seeking unionization is increasing and cannot escape notice: Union representation petitions filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) increased by 57% during the first half of FY 2022 over the same time period in FY 2021. However, the recent notable unionization successes of Starbucks’ employees at various locations and of Amazon employees at the Staten Island location are preceded by notable failures in 2019 at a Tennessee Volkswagen plant and in 2017 at a South Carolina Boeing plant. Predicting whether the swing towards unionization will continue or will amount to a flash in the pan is difficult.

As demonstrated by Amazon’s efforts at quashing the Staten Island unionization effort, fighting unionization can be a long and expensive endeavor. Amazon disclosed that it spent more than $4.2 million on anti-union consultants during 2021 alone. Figures for 2022 have not yet been released. Disputes between management and workers over unionization can also lead to negative press by shining a public light on a company’s problems and labor practices and lead to legal problems stemming from worker complaints to the NLRB regarding illegal company behavior. To maintain good public perception and avoid the cost and increased involvement of the NLRB, companies may voluntarily recognize the unions rather than forcing workers to file a petition with the NLRB. 

Public opinion and vocalization in support of worker issues is one of the determining factors in whether unionization efforts will continue to spread and be successful in the United States. Although approval of unions is on the rise again, it remains to be seen whether it will it lead to a sustained period of public engagement and translate into an increase in unionization.