In December 2021 unions won two victories that have significantly reshaped the American labor movement in the years since: Starbucks Workers United unionized the first store in the company’s history, and the NLRB ruled that organizers be allowed into the Amazon warehouse on Staten Island. By early 2022, two enormous corporations that had been considered all but unorganizable were beaten at the ballot, as the Amazon workers won their union and dozens of Starbucks locations across the country started to organize. The leaders of this upheaval were not the heavyweights of the union establishment, but the workers themselves.
In our June 8, 2022, issue, Willa Glickman explores these movements and more, reviewing five books about the renascent labor movement. “For our economy to function in its current form,” she writes, “hourly workers must toil at unpleasant jobs for very little money.” In interviews with service workers in New York City, Glickman highlights a new class of workers: precariously positioned but committed to winning protection for themselves and their colleagues.
Glickman, an assistant editor at the Review, has written extensively about workers on the margins of formal labor protection. This week she shared her thoughts on the national labor movement and on its representatives in New York.
Nawal Arjini: Most of the pieces about labor that you’ve written for the Review have focused on New York City, such as your reporting on the nurses’ strike or the plight of delivery workers. Did you find reporting and researching a national movement to be a different experience? Did you come across concerns unique to NYC, or the inverse?
Willa Glickman: The books under review gave the article a national focus, but I don’t think I quite escaped a New York City lens—all on-the-ground reporting I did took place in the city, and my interest in the service industry is a result of previous reporting I’ve done here about restaurants and delivery workers. I’m always interested in what’s happening nearby and keeping an eye on local news. But also a lot of the national stories were playing out here: Amazon, Starbucks, Trader Joe’s, REI. We’ve been a union town for a long time, as well as a place with a huge service industry. I find it useful to ground a huge topic like low-wage organizing in a place where I have some sense of what’s going on, because industries and laws and worker demographics and labor conditions vary so much geographically—for example, Gabriel Winant’s The Next Shift does a great job of illustrating how conditions for health care workers in Pittsburgh are deeply tied to that city’s history of steel production.
At the same time, a lot of the employers I wrote about are chains, and they’re pulling similar shenanigans across the nation (with some variation in response to local labor laws), so I think a slight NYC focus doesn’t limit the scope too much. There are certainly places where it’s even more difficult to organize—states with right-to-work laws, or even just areas where an Amazon warehouse might be the only workplace in town, or the only one where it’s possible to make more than $7.25 per hour, which I think makes workers more fearful than they might be in New York of jeopardizing their jobs by joining a union campaign.
You cover many of the different strategies organizers are pursuing to restore some power to workers. Does it seem like these tactics are complementary, or is there tension between them? Which seem most promising to you?
Joe Burns’s Class Struggle Unionism did a good job of convincing me that increased labor militancy and increased strike action are the best ways forward—at least, I haven’t yet come across any strategies that are more plausible or more clearly explained—but I think for the most part they are complementary. There will always be some non-union workers (as it currently stands, most of them), so it’s certainly important to fight for higher minimum wage laws, even if the research I did for this article convinced me that there are some big drawbacks to relying on legislation to fix things for workers.
I think the same goes for worker centers versus unions, which also isn’t a true opposition—as I mention in the piece, worker centers and unions often work together, and currently there are some sectors where unions are illegal or very difficult to achieve, so worker centers are absolutely important. There is a tension between worker-led organizing and top-down, more professionalized organizing, which both Burns and Daisy Pitkin (in On the Line) discuss, and they come out strongly in favor of the former. Pitkin describes a brutal conflict between factions of a union she worked with, UNITE HERE, which was the product of an unwise merger of two unions that had been decided on by their Ivy League–graduate presidents with little consultation of the rank and file. They started sabotaging each other’s campaigns and Pitkin got burned out and took a long break from organizing. Steve Early’s book The Civil Wars in US Labor discusses this and other similar conflicts in detail, and he identifies the lack of worker democracy as the main culprit.
Do you see any continuity, whether ideological, strategic, or organizational, between the new organizing efforts and the earlier twentieth-century waves of unionizing? Are people turning to the past for inspiration, or has the anti-union movement thoroughly erased those earlier paths to worker power?
There’s certainly some continuity—the idea of worker-led organizing has been around for a long time, probably most famously put into action by the Industrial Workers of the World soon after the turn of the century. In 1936 the former Wobbly William Z. Foster wrote Organizing Methods in the Steel Industry, about the huge 1919 steel strike; organizers at Amazon passed the book around for inspiration. The IWW had been running campaigns at Starbucks since 2004, though their reluctance to pursue traditional contracts, among other factors, seemed to limit the scope and permanence of their campaigns.
Other established unions have also supported the recent, fledgling efforts in a number of ways: by offering office space, consultations with organizers and lawyers, and refusing to cross picket lines. When I visited the Starbucks Roastery in Chelsea, workers mentioned that UPS Teamsters had been refusing to deliver packages across their picket line, and now Amazon delivery drivers have unionized with the Teamsters and won a contract.
On the other hand, I’ve also heard it argued that many of these workers are too young to remember some of the most traumatic strikebreaking of the 1980s, so they are less intimidated by the prospect of unionizing—maybe at times a break from that history can be a good thing.
New York City is your hometown. How has reporting on it, or writing about it more generally, changed your relationship to the city?
I feel especially worried about the city these days, and I’m not sure if that’s a result of having to think more deeply about its various social problems when I write about it, or because it is in fact a particularly difficult time to live here. It’s a strange moment: there is simultaneously extreme wealth and skyrocketing real estate prices and rents but also austerity for anything in the public sphere (other than the police). Funding for the MTA, libraries, parks, and pre-K programs is in jeopardy, Eric Adams is threatening to roll back our Right to Shelter law because the administration can’t figure out how to house migrants.
I’m halfway through Kim Phillips-Fein’s book Fear City, which is about the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, when the city was genuinely in dire financial straits and the crisis was exploited to slash the relatively generous social safety net. She argues that there could have been other solutions, but those calling for everyone to “tighten their belts” at least had the excuse that the city was about to go under. I’m not sure what the excuse is now, when residential rents are averaging $5,000 in Manhattan (though I’m sure it’s not unrelated to the events of the 1970s!). Writing about the city makes me become angrier and more concerned, but it does give me a tiny sense of control. When something especially alarming happens, at least I can publicly express my dissatisfaction.