Starbucks and Amazon formed unions. Now they have to agree on contracts.

Union membership in the US has been in decline for decades, but recently there has been a potential shift. Seventeen U.S. corporate Starbucks locations have voted to form a union since late last year, and another 170 or more are scheduled to vote in the coming weeks and months, all in an industry where unionization is rare. And in early April, workers at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island also voted for a union, making them the first to organize at a company known for stifling unionization. These successful votes are historic and are an optimistic sign for unions in America.

But while the hard-won union votes may be the most cinematic part, it’s not the end of the story. The long and difficult process of negotiating a contract that benefits the workers has just begun, and its conclusion is far from certain.

To move forward, the union must write a contract with the company, the union and the company must agree to it, and then the union members must vote on whether they also agree. The process can take anywhere from six months to a few years, and some end up with no contract at all. About 30 percent of unions fail to establish a contract within three years.

The unions that represent workers at Starbucks and Amazon are off to a good start because, for the most part, their goals are clear. The Amazon Workers Union (ALU) has said its main goals are to raise wages to $30 an hour, give workers longer breaks and mostly eliminate mandatory overtime. The first Starbucks Workers United union, at the Elmwood Avenue store in Buffalo, New York, has been in contract negotiations since Jan. 31; so far he has proposed “just cause” terminations, better health and safety protocols, and giving customers the option to tip credit cards. Future proposals include better pay and benefits.

The hardest part, experts say, will be getting Amazon and Starbucks to agree to contracts. That is not for lack of trying on the part of the unions. Rather, unions often face uphill battles with uncooperative companies and ineffective labor laws.

Companies can find many ways to stop. Amazon is already opposing the historic Staten Island vote, accusing the union of threatening voters to vote for the union, among other complaints. Starbucks has filed appeals that have delayed union votes, but has said it will respect the bargaining process of stores that voted to unionize.

Companies are supposed to negotiate in good faith, but there is no timetable for when that should happen, nor are they required to accept the contract. “Our law doesn’t have any mechanism to bind management,” Harry Katz, a professor at Cornell University’s school of labor relations, told Recode. If the NLRB, the federal labor law enforcement agency, finds that they are unnecessarily delaying, there is not much they can do.

It’s clear why many companies stall: it can cause unions to lose momentum. If years go by without a contract, workers may wonder what the point of the union is. Also, both Amazon and Starbucks are in industries with high turnover, where people who were so keen to unionize might not be in that job long enough to fulfill the contract, which could stunt the union drive.

The trick for unions will be to harness collective action like strikes, as well as public and political pressure, to try to get these employers to agree to a contract.

The Amazon Workers Union, which was created to organize the Staten Island warehouse, is not affiliated with an older union, so it doesn’t have the infrastructure, or the cash, of unions that have been collecting dues for years. That means the union, which has so far been funded by crowdfunding and pro bono help, will have to figure out the labyrinthine processes of drafting, negotiating and enforcing a contract on its own. More importantly, their lack of affiliation could hamper the workers’ ability to strike. Unlike established unions, the ALU does not have a fund to help workers, many of whom earn low hourly wages and may not have cash reserves, get through a prolonged strike in which they would forfeit their wages.

However, a strike at an 8,000-person warehouse in New York City would not take that long to be effective, according to Rebecca Givan, a professor at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Studies. “It’s possible that fairly modest actions could cause significant disruption,” she said, saying hour-long or day-long strikes might be enough for management to agree to. It would be very difficult for Amazon to quickly replace striking workers at such a large warehouse.

It’s also possible that the Amazon Labor Union may accept formal or informal help from an existing union, such as the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which is affiliated with the parent union of Starbucks. Mary Kay Henry, international president of SEIU, told Recode in a statement that her union would “offer whatever support we can to help Amazon workers struggling to have a voice at work to negotiate a better future.” . The Teamsters, a union representing warehouse and distribution workers, can also get involved: On Thursday, ALU leaders Christian Smalls and Derrick Palmer reunited with Sean M. O’Brien, general president of the Teamsters. They discussed resources and assistance the Teamsters could provide to help them get their first contract with Amazon, according to a Teamsters spokesperson. Amazon Labor Union did not respond to requests for comment.

Union membership growth in the US, even if it’s not for your own union, is what’s best for unions, according to Givan. “Amazon is a huge threat to the quality of shipping and logistics jobs, many of which are Teamster positions,” he said.

Part of what has made the unions at Starbucks and Amazon successful is their worker-led structure, which has allowed them to largely avoid criticism that they are outsiders. The Starbucks workers themselves are negotiating their contracts, not the union lawyers. That is most likely the case with the Amazon union as well, which is made up entirely of Amazon workers.

The Starbucks union, however, is part of a larger established union called Workers United. That means you have a lot more resources to guide you through drafting and negotiating a contract. That union could also help you with a strike fund if you so choose. However, Starbucks stores are much smaller than an Amazon warehouse, so a strike at just one of its 9,000 stores would have less of an impact. It would also be relatively easier to replace some 20 striking baristas.

One thing that could work in the unions’ favor is that both Amazon and Starbucks are widely known, customer-oriented companies, potentially making it easier for workers to attract political and public lobbyists.

Politicians from Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) to President Joe Biden have shown support for these union efforts. Public approval of unions is at its highest level since 1965, according to Gallup.

“The whole country is watching and workers all over the world are watching, and they are judging Amazon and Starbucks for their actions,” Givan said.

Public and political union supporters could help pressure companies to accept union demands. Perhaps most directly, Starbucks’ own investors have called on the company to remain neutral on unions and quickly reach collective bargaining agreements with unionized stores.

As to whether the recent spate of successful unionization and current contract negotiations are enough to reverse the long decline in union membership, Katz said, “I think it will lead to more [organizing] but I don’t think it’s an indication of massive change yet.” He added: “We need more Amazons, we need a lot of Starbucks to get us organized. And then we need more signs [of increased unionizing] in the more traditional sectors.

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