REBEKAH ROBINSON, HOST: After decades of decline, organized labor appears to be making a comeback. New York City is a major hotspot. It's home to the country’s first unionized Amazon warehouse and some of the first unionized Starbucks stores. Of course, New York is a liberal city, where unions have strong support. But in its much more conservative suburbs, can this new labor movement find the same success? Uptown Radio’s David Marques went to Long Island to find out.
DAVID MARQUES, BYLINE: When you walk into a Starbucks on Long Island, it probably looks like any other. There’s the dim lighting, the roaring blenders, the teenagers snapping pics of their tricked-out frappucinos. But behind the façade of sameness, something unusual is happening.
HANNAH TAUSTINE: I’ve been whispering about it with certain people, for a very, very long time.
MARQUES: Taustine is a 21-year-old Massapequa native. And she’s organizing a union in the town’s Starbucks. She’s been working part-time as a barista for the past three years, and for the most part, it’s been a good job. She says the company offers her generous benefits, and she has a warm relationship with her fellow baristas and manager. But Taustine has long had issues with corporate policies, especially during the pandemic.
TAUSTINE: We’re still very disappointed in how coronavirus was handled by Starbucks. Plexiglass was taken down because it didn’t match the aesthetic of the store, very early in the pandemic.
MARQUES: To avoid drawing corporate attention to other Starbucks unionizing campaigns, Taustine decided to meet up at a Dunkin’ Donuts. I asked her what else she wants to see change at Starbucks. She says a lack of seniority pay is another factor that pushed the store to register with the National Labor Relations Board in February.
TAUSTINE: We see that people who have been here for 12 years, more than that, some of us aren’t getting paid as much as they should be. Some of them felt really failed, frankly, by Starbucks.
MARQUES: When I met Taustine, the mail-in vote had just finished. She said she was “moderately confident” the vote would go in the union’s favor. Over 60 Starbucks nationwide have already organized. Hundreds more have plans to do the same. But many of those are in college towns or cities like Minneapolis and Denver, which tend to lean liberal. Massapequa, though, is conservative, a red blotch in a heavily blue metro area. In the 2020 election, all of its precincts went to Donald Trump. But, as it turns out, the political leaning of the labor movement has shifted drastically over its history. In the 1930s, Communist and socialist parties often led militant strikes, like in Flint, Michigan
ARCHIVAL: What observers describe as the most crucial battle in American labor history has practically shut down the entire American motor industry. What happens when strikers go crazy, when destruction is the order of the day.
MARQUES: But Johnnie Kallas, who directs the ILR Labor Action database at Cornell University, says that radical streak wouldn’t last for long.
JOHNNIE KALLAS: After World War II, you had the anti-communist purge and McCarthyism. That really expelled the most left-wing leaders in the labor movement and really took away the best organizers that the labor movement had at the time, who were communists.
MARQUES: From the 1950s onward, the labor movement grew more conservative. And in Massapequa and surrounding areas, the right-leaning police union is now one of the strongest. But in recent years, the left-wing presence in labor organizing has begun to return nationally. Here’s Bernie Sanders speaking at the Starbucks Workers Unity Fest in Richmond, Virginia.
ARCHIVAL: Now I understand that Starbucks calls their workers “partners.” Well, if you consider employees partners, you don’t break their efforts to form a union. You treat them with respect.
MARQUES: But weakening labor laws and the decline of heavy industry have gradually pushed most unions out of American life. Today, only about 10% of workers belong to one. Such small numbers can be a challenge for those looking to organize in conservative spots like Massapequa.
KALLAS: The question really is, can you create a mass movement of workers from different political backgrounds to take action at their workplace?
MARQUES: At least on Long Island, building a movement with workers with different backgrounds might not be as hard as you’d think. For one, the Island has a relatively strong union presence, and has for decades. in Massapequa there are strong unions for teachers, firefighters and other municipal workers. It turns out labor’s mixed political history can help organizers. Mary Anne Trasciatti, director of the labor studies program at Hofstra University, says Long Island as we know it today wouldn’t exist without that union density.
MARY ANNE TRASCIATTI: Much of the suburbs here were built on union labor, not just like the actual buildings, but people had union jobs, and they bought houses and raised families. We have a reputation – and I think rightly so – for political conservatism… And then just in general, a white suburban kind of ethos, but there also is a considerable labor history.
MARQUES: And it’s organizing around the bread and butter economic issues that labor traditionally cares about - like pay and benefits - that may help workers cooperate across the partisan divide today. Rob Turissini is chief negotiator for the teachers union in Commack, Long Island. He’s a registered Republican who considers himself a moderate.
ROB TURISSINI: With my positions, I’m in a lot of discussions regarding policies and contractual issues, and we don’t really ever discuss the political side of it.
MARQUES: Turissini says getting better pay and benefits for union members is the real focus.
TURISSINI: Job protections are important for everybody. I think everybody on both sides are coming together with regards to making sure that the workplace is safe and has good wages, good health care, and [is] equitable.
MARQUES: Starbucks organizer Hannah Taustine says the same is true. She identifies as a democratic socialist, and reads feminist philosophers like Simone de Beauvoir in her spare time. She couldn’t be more different politically from Turissini. But both when it comes to organizing, both have found common ground.
TAUSTINE: Some of our biggest supporters in terms of the union have been from coworkers who lean more conservative in their views. I was honestly expecting that schism to be between liberal and conservative, but it ended up not being like that at all.
MARQUES: Starbucks didn’t respond to a request for comment about concerns from labor organizers in time for air. But for organizers that strategy of unifying workers by focusing on the issues paid off, big time. Just one day after I met Taustine in Dunkin’ Donuts, Massapequa Starbucks became the first unionized shop on Long Island.
David Marques, Columbia Radio News.