After decades of decline, many labor advocates and watchers say the U.S. is seeing an upswing of interest and energy around union organizing.
Workers at high-profile companies like Amazon and Starbucks have unionized, as have employees at smaller chains and locally-owned firms.
Chicago workers have also been part of the wave. Here’s a look at some of the big developments over the past year.
Starbucks and Beyond
The effort to unionize Starbucks coffee shops has spread rapidly around the country since organizers notched their first victory in Buffalo, New York, in December 2021.
That same month, workers at a downtown Starbucks became the first of the coffee giant’s Chicago locations to file for a union election. While that cafe’s efforts weren’t successful, there are now nine unionized Starbucks in Chicago and the suburbs. Two other locations have also filed for unionization and are awaiting their election. Votes have failed at four locations, and one unionized Starbucks in Edgewater was closed down.
Organizers around the U.S. – and National Labor Relations Board officials – have accused the company of illegal anti-union tactics, including firing pro-union workers and closing organized stores. Starbucks has repeatedly denied the claims and vowed to defend itself.
Nationwide, more than 250 Starbucks locations have voted to unionize.
Labor experts say it’s a challenge to unionize store by store, but organizers have demonstrated the capacity for nationwide action. In both November and December, workers at unionized Starbucks locations around the country held coordinated unfair labor practice strikes and accused the company of failing to bargain in good faith.
But Starbucks isn’t the only coffee chain to see Chicago workers unionize. In August, workers at Intelligentsia Coffee’s five locations in the Chicago area voted in favor of union representation. This month, the IBEW announced that those employees had ratified their first collective bargaining agreement with the company.
Also this month, workers at two La Colombe locations in the Gold Coast and West Loop announced their intention to organize under the United Food and Commercial Workers union.
Another win for coffee shop workers came in the spring. After a long fight with management over whether workers at Wisconsin-based Colectivo Coffee – which includes five Chicagoland locations – had properly voted in favor of IBEW representation, the NLRB ruled that the union election was valid.
In April, workers at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island voted in favor of representation by the Amazon Labor Union, a first for the mega e-tailer.
“We deserve more, and we deserve better than what we’re receiving,” union president Chris Smalls told WTTW News.
But in the fall, workers at a company warehouse near Albany, New York, voted against representation.
Here in Chicago, Amazon warehouse workers haven’t filed for union representation, but they have taken collective action against the company.
The group Amazonians United Chicagoland says it’s active at multiple locations and that it has successfully advocated for things like changes in policy and pay increases.
A group of Amazon workers in Joliet have also filed charges against the company with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, saying the company didn’t do enough to combat a racially hostile work environment, including death threats against Black workers.
Other Local, National Efforts
Cannabis workers have also been part of organizing efforts. Both the Teamsters and United Food and Commercial Workers have been working to unionize many of the Chicago area’s popular marijuana dispensaries
After a vote this summer, the Illinois Nurses Association expanded beyond just the nursing staff at Howard Brown Health. The union now covers employees at all its clinics, its youth center, and its Brown Elephant resale stores.
Some prominent educational institutions have seen organizing efforts as well. Graduate student workers at Northwestern University and the University of Chicago filed for union elections in November. And earlier this month, adjunct faculty at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago voted to unionize.
Election day also brought a win for union backers, when voters supported the so-called Workers’ Rights Amendment broadening rights in the Illinois constitution for collective bargaining.
“This is a major win for workers rights that will outlast any single politicians’ term and enshrine a key right for Illinoisans for generations to come,” Governor J.B. Pritzker said in a December proclamation announcing the amendment had passed.
Organizers and their supporters are also hopeful the National Labor Relations Board is about to get a financial boost in a new federal spending plan. The $25 million budget increase will be the agency’s first in nine years, according to the NLRB union. Union supporters say the agency has been chronically underfunded, weakening its ability to enforce labor laws.