By: Ashley A. Smith, Esq. and Ty Hyderally, Esq.
When just one of more than 15,000 Starbucks locations in the U.S. makes national news, it’s got to be quite a story.
Just this month, workers at a Starbucks store in Buffalo, New York voted to become the first corporate-owned Starbucks store in the U.S. to officially unionize. News cameras captured employees’ celebrations.
Those workers sure look delighted. It sounds like good news.
But if you’re like many Americans, you may be wondering…
In 2020, only 10.8% of American workers were union members. It’s likely that you, the person reading this blog right now, are not and have never been a union member. It’s quite possible that you don’t know anyone else who is.
But decades ago, that was a lot less likely.
Union activity is as American as apple pie. While historians identify different organizations as the “first union” in the U.S., they agree that labor unions have existed in the U.S. for at least 151 years. Indeed, labor strikes on American soil date back to colonial times.
Under English common law, workers participating in a “conspiracy to raise wages” was illegal. The legality of “labor combinations” in the U.S. was uncertain until a group of mid-19th century court decisions addressed the issue squarely. In Commonwealth v. Hunt and others, courts ruled that labor combinations were legal, so long as they were organized for a legal purpose and using legal means to achieve their objectives.
And then they all lived happily ever after, right?
Then, workers faced attacks on another front. In 1908, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld “yellow-dog” contracts – contracts forbidding employees from joining labor unions – as constitutional.
This decision came as a shocker to many and was opposed by President Roosevelt. In fact, some say it was because the justices bowed to political pressure, after President Roosevelt threatened to “pack” the Supreme Court with new appointees, that the Court reconsidered it’s decision. In 1937, the Court decided to overturn the decision allowing for “yellow dog” contracts.
In the meantime, highly contentious strikes continued. This led to the enactment of various labor acts, including the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (the “NLRA”), which aims to correct the “inequality of bargaining power” between employers and employees by promoting collective bargaining.
Following a major strike wave in the mid-1940s, the NLRA was amended by the Taft-Hartley Act, which imposed limits on the rights that the NLRA conferred to workers and unions.
Surely the pendulum has swung back since 1947?
To date, subsequent attempts to amend the NLRA have failed. Thus, a 74-year-old law continues to set the parameters for labor organizing and action in the U.S.
That sounds pretty bleak. Why do Starbucks workers care about a union, anyway?
As a union, workers at the union Starbucks store in Buffalo have won the ability to collectively negotiate a contract for better wages, benefits, and working conditions.
The history of workers’ rights in the U.S. continues to be written every day. We have high hopes for the next chapter.
Note: This blog post intends to provide a cursory overview, not a full and comprehensive history, of union activity in the U.S. The contributions of people of all races, genders, creeds, and national origins to the American labor movement can hardly be overstated.
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