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Amazon and Starbucks union workers could be invited to White House

The offer would amount to a significant pro-labor gesture

President Biden speaks in the South Court Auditorium in the White House complex in Washington on April 28, 2022. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
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The Biden administration is talking with workers behind the union drives at Amazon and Starbucks about a potential White House visit, four people familiar with the matter said, in what would amount to a significant show of support for the ongoing unionization drives.

The discussions come just weeks after the White House said it would resist picking sides in high-profile union disputes. The people familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the discussions have not been made public, said details are fluid and no meeting has been finalized.

Amazon workers shocked the labor movement by voting at the end of March to unionize a company warehouse on Staten Island, and the results of a vote at a second Amazon warehouse on Staten Island are expected Monday. Starbucks workers have formed unions at more than 40 locations since December.

President Biden appears to back broadening union push at Amazon

Biden has frequently said he would be the most “pro-union” president in American history, but the White House has largely avoided the perception of direct involvement with union drives.

Speaking to the North America’s Building Trades Union this month, Biden said: “By the way, Amazon, here we come. Watch.” White House press secretary Jen Psaki later said that Biden’s remarks were not “sending a message that he or the U.S. government would be directly involved in any of these efforts or take any direct action,” in line with the administration’s long-standing position.

But White House officials are eager to align themselves with the apparent revival of the labor movement that they argue is the result of their economic policies. Republicans have attacked Biden’s economic record as leading to higher inflation for American families, but wages also have risen rapidly.

The unemployment rate has plummeted and job openings have surged, giving workers leverage to demand better conditions. The Biden administration is optimistic that workers can translate that leverage into lasting gains, particularly if inflation cools this year.

The posture is a significant departure from the administrations of Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, who also governed at a time when unions had lower levels of support in public opinion polling.

A White House spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Spokespeople for Starbucks and Amazon also did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

“This is a sea change, not only from the Republican administrations, but even from Obama and Clinton, who were reluctant to openly embrace unions. This is, head-on: We’re on the side of workers trying to organize and get people better conditions,” said Dean Baker, the senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a left-leaning think tank. “They want people to see they’re on the side of union workers.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) also had pressed the administration to invite the workers to the White House. At a rally at an Amazon facility on Staten Island this month, Sanders said: “To his credit, Biden has talked more about unions than any other president in my lifetime. ... But talk is not enough. What he has got to do is start inviting these guys to the White House.”

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Sanders added: “Make it clear that he is on their side, and that he is going to do what he can to support labor organizing throughout this country.”

Other experts have pointed out that higher union membership is not yet visible in federal data, although these numbers lag and may be out of date. Will Raderman, an employment policy analyst at the Niskanen Center, a center-right think tank, said this month that “the most recent data nationally does not reflect increased labor power.”

The Starbucks and Amazon unionization efforts have caught fire in recent weeks, much to the frustration of executives at both companies, who have spent millions of dollars trying to stop the movements.

So far, 43 Starbucks stores have voted to unionize, with 13 voting yes this week. Most of the wins have been landslides for the union. More than 225 Starbucks stores around the country have had votes scheduled by the National Labor Relations Board.

A Rhodes scholar barista and the fight to unionize Starbucks

The Starbucks unionization effort, which began in Buffalo last year with a few dozen baristas, has the backing of Workers United, an affiliate of the larger SEIU, but has been overseen almost entirely by Starbucks baristas based in Buffalo.

The nascent Amazon Labor Union, which was formed by a fired Amazon worker and a few current workers on Staten Island last spring, notched its first victory April 1 on Staten Island at a warehouse with more than 8,000 workers.

Christian Smalls, the union’s interim president, said that more than 100 workers around the country have approached his union with inquiries about unionizing their facilities. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Amazon and Starbucks — which have sought to associate themselves with liberal causes and have deep ties to the Democratic Party — have fought the unionization efforts.

Amazon has so far refused to recognize the Amazon Labor Union’s victory and has filed a protest with the NLRB, accusing the union and the NLRB of irregularities that the company claims influenced the outcome of the unionization vote.

Smalls accused the company of harassing and intimidating workers who backed the union drive.

The Amazon Labor Union’s lawyer has filed more than 40 allegations of unfair labor practice against the company. Amazon also hired Global Strategy Group, a company that in recent years had employed Psaki, to help with its effort to thwart the union on Staten Island.

The group has since publicly apologized for its anti-union work on behalf of Amazon.

Starbucks has also mobilized to fight the union effort by bringing back Howard Schultz, who had retired as chief executive in 2018, to lead the company.

“We can’t ignore what is happening in the country as it relates to companies throughout the country being assaulted in many ways by the threat of unionization,” Schultz told workers this month. “I’m not an anti-union person. I am pro-Starbucks, pro-partner, pro-Starbucks culture, pro-heritage. ... We didn’t get here by having a union at Starbucks.”

The Starbucks and Amazon unionization efforts, both of which were started by workers with little to no backing from big unions, have shocked a labor movement that had been shrinking for decades. Last Sunday, top union officials and pro-labor politicians, who had been reluctant to embrace the Amazon Labor Union before its surprising victory, rushed to Staten Island ahead of its second election.

Amazon Labor Union leaders, who want help and support, are reluctant to give up control to a broader labor movement that they don’t entirely trust. One challenge for the broader labor movement and pro-union politicians will be figuring out how to help the nascent Amazon union, which is volunteer-run and self-funded, grow into a national force without compromising its worker-led, grass-roots appeal.

“Morally we must support you. Righteously we must support you,” said Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, at a rally outside the Staten Island facility.

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