Free, fair elections are under attack—at work

This Labor Day, union-busting by Starbucks and Amazon have made Seattle the epicenter of shameful efforts to undermine workplace democracy. We must hold them accountable.



(Sept. 5, 2022) — Given Seattle’s reputation as a progressive city, you might be surprised that the city has become a testing ground for baseless allegations of voter fraud to undermine confidence in fair elections. Here, it’s an effort to subvert democracy not in our government, but in our workplaces.

Union activity is surging across the nation. As workers reassess their quality of life — and employment — unions are more popular than they have been in a generation. Petitions for union elections are way up and workers are winning those elections at the fastest pace in decades.

Two iconic Seattle-based corporations, Starbucks and Amazon, are experiencing highly publicized union organizing drives. Workers at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island, N.Y., voted to unionize in April, inspiring other Amazon facilities to seek union elections. As of this writing, there are now 220 unionized Starbucks stores — including 16 in western Washington. A year ago there were none.

But rather than honoring their employees’ freedom to choose unionization, both companies are fighting to deny workers’ right to bargain collectively for better wages and working conditions. Both companies stand accused of harassing or firing union supporters, and in Starbucks’ case, of closing several stores where employees voted to unionize. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the federal agency that oversees union elections, has determined that Starbucks broke federal law by firing workers for organizing, most recently seven workers illegally fired for union activity in Memphis.

But the companies haven’t stopped there. They are trying to undermine confidence in union election results. They know they’re losing, so they’ve adopted an eerily familiar playbook; wild accusations of fraud.

Amazon continues to contest the results of the Staten Island workers’ union victory, which was won by more than 500 votes and 11 percentage points.

Starbucks has gone a step further, seeking to suspend all union elections at its stores, claiming without evidence that the NLRB has been cheating to help the workers unionize. Specifically, Starbucks wants to cast doubt on the legitimacy of mail-in ballots and force workers to cast votes in-person, hoping for lower turnout.

Where have we heard that before?

At a time when fair elections are under attack across the nation, I’m proud to live in a state that values this democratic institution. Thanks to mail-in ballots and other steps we’ve taken to promote voting, Washington just experienced one of the highest primary voter turnouts in the nation, without any evidence of voter fraud.

It’s shameful that some of Washington’s biggest homegrown corporations don’t share these values and are instead deploying Trumpian tactics to undermine fair elections when they don’t like the outcomes. Rather than respect their employees’ rights and bargain in good faith to address the issues that led them to unionize, Starbucks and Amazon are fighting to undermine workplace democracy.

Anyone familiar with how union elections work understands that the companies’ goal is to delay, delay, delay. Doing so discourages employees from unionizing.

“It’s immaterial whether (Starbucks’) charges are true or not. The victory is delay,” said Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy. The effort also helps “to sow distrust about the NLRB process, and maybe scares off even more workers from becoming involved in the process,” said John Logan, a San Francisco State University professor who studies anti-union actions.

This Labor Day, as greedy corporations fight to undermine workplace democracy, let’s celebrate that Washington remains a strong union state. Our union membership rate is 19 percent of the total workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). With an additional 72,000 workers joining unions last year, there are now an estimated 629,000 union members in Washington. We’re now the third most unionized state in the nation behind only Hawaii and New York.

Union members earn higher wages and are far more likely to get healthcare and retirement benefits. Median weekly earnings for union members were $1,169 last year, according to the BLS report, compared to $975 per week for non-union workers. That’s more than a 19 percent higher pay rate on average for union members.

That’s the union difference, and that’s why we need to hold corporations like Starbucks and Amazon accountable when they try to deny our freedom to join together and negotiate for better pay and working conditions.

Larry Brown is President of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO. This opinion column was published on Labor Day 2022 in The Seattle Times and is posted here with the author’s permission.

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