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Starbucks union push in Atlanta part of national organizing trend

July 7, 2022 Updated Thu., July 7, 2022 at 8:06 p.m.

Hannah Whitbeck, center, of Ann Arbor, Michigan, talks about how she says she was fired by Starbucks at a union rally in Seattle on April 21, 2022.  (Tribune News Service )
Hannah Whitbeck, center, of Ann Arbor, Michigan, talks about how she says she was fired by Starbucks at a union rally in Seattle on April 21, 2022. (Tribune News Service )
By Michael E. Kanell Tribune News Service

ATLANTA – About a dozen customers were spread around the Ansley Mall Starbucks on a recent Friday, quietly working at tables or fiddling on their smartphones.

From behind the counter came the tapping of brewing tools, the crinkling of wrappers, a bean-grinder straining. Two baristas wore shirts with rainbows and the words, “So glad you’re here.”

The cafe felt laid-back, friendly, bright, welcoming and diverse. The only sign that this one was any different than 9,000 other Starbucks stores was a button, half-hidden in the folds on one barista’s apron.

It read: “Starbucks Workers United.”

The Ansley Mall store in mid-June became the third Starbucks in Georgia to vote for a union, part of what seems to be a low-key, yet undeniable ripple of union organizing.

Between October and March, petitions to unionize jumped 57% nationally from a year earlier, according to the National Labor Relations Board.

Among the biggest targets in Georgia is a 5,500-worker Amazon warehouse in Gwinnett County, where organizing has just begun, said attorney James Fagan of Stanford Fagan, an Atlanta-based firm that represents several unions.

Further along is Endurance Environmental Solutions in Norcross, which hauls waste to landfills, where a union vote among 60 workers is scheduled for in the coming days, Fagan said.

And late last year, employees of Liberty Tire Recycling in Atlanta voted to join the Teamsters.

“There’s definitely more organizing going on, and more workers are interested,” Fagan said.

President Joe Biden has made the NLRB more union-friendly, but that only matters once organizers petition for recognition.

And in Georgia, the organizing effort appears focused on the retail and services industries.

A national flight attendants union, meanwhile, is once again targeting Delta Air Lines, a coveted labor group that has been out of reach for decades.

Recent headline-grabbing economic development deals like the Rivian and Hyundai Motor Group electric vehicle plants are likely to create thousands of jobs and make for tempting prospects.

But after decades of seeing new, non-union plants pop up, it’s unclear how successful a union pitch might be at those future factories.

In a state that has been historically non-union, the battle to organize in Georgia has often been uphill.

And in a workforce of 5 million, most efforts may have a minimal impact.

Yet in recent months, there have been public signs of union activism: among low-wage marginal workers, long-time unionists pushing for better contracts and – most visibly – upstart efforts in high-profile, nonfactory settings like Starbucks and Apple.

Maybe it’s the tight labor market that gives workers more leverage.

After all, the historically low unemployment rate during a time of economic growth has many employers desperate for workers, less able to dictate terms and pay, said Anthony Barilla, economist at Georgia Southern University, who has researched labor issues.

“There is a shortage of workers willing to work at the minimum wage or at a wage that simply doesn’t mesh with the area’s standard of living,” he said. “When labor deserves a higher wage, organizing is simply a tool to be used in accomplishing this.”

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