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Participants seen holding signs and marching on a picket line during a solidarity event in Manhattan showing support for Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama.
Union leaders are joined by community group representatives, elected officials and social activists for a rally in support of unionization efforts by Amazon workers in the state of Alabama on March 21, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)

Rare Unionizing Opportunity in Big Box and Retail Chains

Chalk it up to the pandemic’s dislocations when millions of workers left their jobs, and many have not yet returned

Ralph Nader

This is the most opportune time for millions of workers in Big Box retail stores and fast-food outlets to form unions. McDonald’s, Walmart, Amazon, Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, Burger King, and other giant chains are having trouble finding enough workers. Some of these companies are even paying signing bonuses and upping low pay.

Chalk it up to the pandemic’s dislocations when millions of workers left their jobs, and many have not yet returned. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT), the United Food & Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) see the opportunity of a lifetime, but are they putting enough organizing resources into this effort?

For over four decades, unions of all kinds in the corporate economy have been in decline. Only six percent of private sector workers are now in unions. However, polls are showing a high favorability level for unions, following worker heroics on behalf of Covid-19 victims.

The House of Representatives has passed the Protecting the Right to Organize Act – opposed by the Republican corporatists – but Senate prospects are dim due to the same GOP corporatists. Why the Senate Democrats are not regularly holding hearings on the plights of non-union working families can only be answered by Majority Leader, Democrat Chuck Schumer of New York.

Since Reagan took office in January 1981, organized labor has been battered by numerous forces. These include (1) the eight years of Ronald Reagan, Union-buster-in-chief, owning the White House, (2) ever greater exportation of jobs propelled by large companies abandoning the U.S. for communist and fascist dictatorships abroad with their legions of serf labor, and (3) growing automations of the workplace. Mediocre leadership of many unions has not helped either.

Younger people in these giant retail outlets have little knowledge of how unions saved the working classes in the 20th century from many of the cruelest treatments by corporate capitalism. Current union educational efforts are filling some of this gap of why, how, and where to form a union – though not with the intensity of the late union leaders Tony Mazzocchi and Harry Kelber. Mr. Kelber was the greatest writer of popular “how to” pamphlets for workers seeking unions. (See: laboreducator.org).

While the big retailers may sporadically fill worker gaps with one-time economic incentives, they are still run by the same old union busting bosses with their union busting, pricey law firms and consultants.

Their mantra – crush any tiny unionizing effort at any store, no matter its costs. A few weeks ago, Dollar General, with over 7,000 stores nationwide, crushed such an effort in a Dollar General store in Winsted, Connecticut. They sent in five “consultants” to stay in the store at a stunning $2700 each a day, according to a long page-one article in the Washington Post. These and other corporate intimidators sometimes outnumbered the six employees during the unionizing drive, until the unionists narrowly lost the vote to the other frightened employees. One employee was dismissed for being pro-union but reinstated for the vote.

There are major strikes by workers at John Deere, Kellogg, and some other large manufacturing firms. Right now, however, the big battle that should be joined is with Big Retail, where the jobs making burgers or coffee cannot be exported.

The takeaway from all this is threefold.

First, the Democratic Party should scale up its enthusiasm and backing of these valiant workers, right down to the local Democratic Party committees.

Second, same is true for the AFL-CIO which can provide stronger backup of the federation’s member unions and press the Biden Administration to strongly enforce labor laws that are routinely, says the AFL-CIO website, violated by companies with impunity.

Third, consumers and their organizations should elevate their support for paid sick leave, adequate healthcare, safe working conditions, and fair wages; if not for solidarity, then for safely served food. Consumers should not want to see hard-pressed, sick workers having to serve them, to pay bills.

For labor, this is a briefly open window in history. Robotics and surplus labor will soon be closing it. Unions need to move at unaccustomed and rapid speeds now!


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Ralph Nader

Ralph Nader

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate and the author of "The Seventeen Solutions: Bold Ideas for Our American Future" (2012). His new book is, "Wrecking America: How Trump’s Lies and Lawbreaking Betray All(2020, co-authored with Mark Green).

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