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Unions Moving Mountains

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Leaders new and old are motivating workers to organize and strike for their causes, and many of them are winning.

In the past few years, we’ve witnessed a nationwide surge of worker organization efforts, hinting at the future potential for a new Golden Age of unions. From the Amazon Labor Union to the United Auto Workers, we’ve seen big wins made possible through strong leadership and the mass mobilization of workers. Each of these wins is beginning to create lasting change in the American workforce.

Today, we’re celebrating union leaders and the movements they inspired by looking back at their impactful stories and sharing their words of confidence that unions are the future.

Tackling a Corporate Giant

When Chris Smalls launched a two-year battle against retail titan Amazon, he made us rethink what’s possible. His triumph over one of the largest, most powerful corporations on the planet speaks to the power one worker can have to inspire many more colleagues to act.

In March 2020, when Smalls organized a walkout over unsafe COVID-19 practices, Amazon fired him. The effects of this one act spurred a movement and activated a nation. After Smalls helped form the Amazon Labor Union for his Staten Island warehouse, over 50 foreign and domestic Amazon warehouses have pursued their own organizational efforts.

Smalls told NPR, “If I can lead us to victory over Amazon, what's stopping anybody in this country from organizing their workplace? Nothing.”

Workers at other retailers across the country have followed suit in starting their own unions, including Trader Joes, REI and Apple stores.

From Zero to 400 in Under 3 Years

Dangerous COVID-19 exposures were affecting Starbucks’ frontline workers, too. Several baristas banded together to organize despite the company’s aggressively anti-union stance, even allegedly firing employees for their union involvement. In the end, workers formed the first Starbucks Workers United union in 2021, which now boasts 400 unionized stores, according to their website.

Michelle Eisen, one of the union’s core leaders, celebrated the win as one for service workers everywhere. She said, “This is a historic moment in time. With a union, we now have the ability to negotiate a contract that holds Starbucks accountable to be the company we know it can be, and gives us a real voice in our workplace.”

“Yes, these corporations are mountains, but together we can make them move.” — Shawn Fain, president, United Auto Workers union

The First Strike of Its Kind

Exerting a union’s power is just as important as organizing one. In 2023, the number of U.S. workers participating in strikes more than doubled from the previous year — rising from 224,000 to 539,000, according to Cornell University.

Shawn Fain, president of the United Auto Workers union, led a bold six-week strike against the Big 3 U.S. automakers: Ford Motor Company, General Motors, and Stellantis. Fain wanted his members to make a fair wage and enjoy proper benefits. With corporate-level executives raking in millions, why weren’t his people making a living wage?

The union’s dogged determination resulted in historic improvements for 150,000 of its members, including wage increases, improved overtime, and retirement benefits, plus the end of a two-tiered employment system.

In a speech before UAW members, Fain said, “Yes, these corporations are mountains, but together we can make them move. I have always believed that UAW members serve a higher power. We have a mission and a calling. We fight not only for the good of our union or for the good of our members and our families. We fight for the good of the entire working class.”

The UAW’s win is just the beginning. Now Fain has his sights on unionizing Tesla and Toyota, among other U.S. automakers. “We’re going to organize like we’ve never organized before,” Fain recently told CNBC.

Strike Threat Makes Huge Impact

Sometimes, unions achieve their goals just by threatening to strike. In the summer of 2023, the Teamster Union did just that for UPS workers. When customers got wind that a strike was imminent, they started using other delivery services for their packages, leaving UPS to lose out on a million package sales — spurring the company to negotiate.

The Teamsters ratified a ground-breaking 5-year agreement for 340,000 members with better pay, added jobs, and several workplace protections and improvements. Teamsters General President Sean O’Brien made the following statement after the win:

“We’ve changed the game, battling it out day and night to make sure our members won an agreement that pays strong wages, rewards their labor, and doesn’t require a single concession. This contract sets a new standard in the labor movement and raises the bar for all workers.” — Sean O’Brien, Teamsters General President

We applaud these union leaders — and the multitude of workers they inspired — who fought to protect the American dream.

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