If you feel like your union needs a jump-start—whether you’re a longtime shop steward or just started your first union job—this book is for you.
The impulse you have (“This union could be stronger and better, and I want to help change it”) makes you part of a long tradition—what we at Labor Notes affectionately call the trouble-making wing of the labor movement.
One basic principle unites us troublemakers. We believe democracy, meaning broad member participation at every level of the union, is the heart of union power.
Three miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, auto parts workers in Piedras Negras, Coahuila, voted yesterday to join an independent union, defeating company attempts to usher in an employer-friendly, politically connected union.
The independent Mexican Workers’ League (la Liga Sindical Obrera Mexicana) won 186 votes, while a union with ties to the powerful Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM) received 101.
The 350 workers at Michigan-based auto parts maker VU Manufacturing produce interior car parts including arm rests and door upholstery for Nissan, Tesla, and other carmakers.
In June, the League and a local organization, the Border Workers Committee (el Comité Fronterizo de Obrer@s, or CFO), filed a petition under the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement’s rapid-response mechanism. The complaint alleged that the company was interfering with VU workers’ right to free association by pushing them to affiliate with the CTM, a union notorious for signing contracts behind workers’ backs, locking in low wages and poor working conditions, and preventing workers from forming genuine unions.
Railroad unions continue their slow creep along the path to a settlement—or strike—in contract negotiations covering 115,000 workers. On August 16, the Presidential Emergency Board convened by President Biden issued its recommendations for a settlement. Many rail workers say they fall short and are prepared to strike to win more.
The PEB recommended 22 percent raises over the course of the five-year contract (dating back to 2020), which would be the highest wage increases rail unions have seen in decades. But they are offset by increases in health care costs—and come in the midst of high inflation.
The PEB also refused to touch almost any of the unions’ demands on work rules and conditions, either denying them outright or suggesting that the unions return to the slow negotiation and arbitration process they have already languished in since November 2019. Unions have been demanding a sick leave policy—rail workers have no sick days—and the PEB refused them. The PEB also refused to take a position on the strict attendance policies have infuriated many rail workers.
Chipotle workers in Lansing, Michigan, formed the fast food chain’s first recognized union in the U.S., voting 11-3 on August 25 to join Teamsters Local 243. It’s the latest in a string of new organizing breakthroughs at prominent national brands, from Starbucks to Apple to Trader Joe’s to REI.
Of all the employers that have seen union drives over the past year, Chipotle—with 100,000 employees across 3,000 stores, and long-term plans to double its footprint in North America—is the most similar to Starbucks. They’re both outliers in fast food: their stores are primarily corporate-owned, rather than franchised out to smaller operators.
Though chains like Subway and McDonald’s have more total locations, Starbucks and Chipotle are two of just four fast food chains with more than 1,000 company-operated locations. (The others are Panda Express and Arby’s.)
Starbucks barista was Aneil Tripathi’s first job, at 17. Now 19 and a shift supervisor, he helped organize a union in his store in Anderson, South Carolina. He and his co-workers, whom Starbucks calls “partners,” have been on strike twice this summer—an experience Tripathi calls emotional and fun.
Since the Starbucks Workers United campaign launched last fall, workers have won union authorization elections at 220 stores, and struck at least 60. The company has retaliated harshly—closing some stores, firing dozens of union leaders, claiming interference by the National Labor Relations Board, and calling for a moratorium on mail-in elections.
Starbucks also barred union stores from receiving long-awaited benefits to be implemented August 1, provoking several strikes.
Jonah Furman from Labor Notes spoke with Tripathi about the joys of the picket line, Starbucks’ retaliation, and how a store manager got so rattled by a collective action that she accused the workers of kidnapping her. This text has been condensed and edited for clarity. –Editors
We had our vote count May 31. I remember everything because I was so excited. I was expecting maybe two or three no votes, but we were the first unanimous store in the South.
It was fine for a week. We were proud. We were wearing our Starbucks Workers United shirts; we put up a sign saying “Welcome to your unionized I-85 Starbucks.”
Our store manager said. “You can’t wear those shirts, it’s against Starbucks dress code.” I said, “That’s illegal. Under the National Labor Relations Act we’re allowed to wear union apparel.” She says, “I’m just telling you what I was told. The next person to wear one will be written up.”
So we stopped wearing them for a while; we were unsure of the write-up process. I said, “What do you think of a direct action?” We went on strike June 10.
Support and solidarity has been pouring in for workers of the Malamatina Winery in Thessaloniki, Greece, who have been protesting against the dismissal of several of their compatriots and demanding a collective agreement from the employer. On Wednesday, August 24, cadres from the Communist Youth of Greece (KNE) and the Federation of Greek Women (OGE), among others, visited the protesting workers at Thessaloniki and expressed their support. Lefteris Nikolaou-Alavanos, Member of the European Parliament (MEP) from the Communist Party of Greece (KKE), also expressed his solidarity with the workers. Nikolaou-Alavanos has submitted a written petition to the European Commission seeking intervention to prevent the implementation of anti-worker policies in Greece and EU-dictated labor reforms. The All Workers Militant Front of Greece (PAME) had earlier also expressed solidarity with the workers at Malamatina.
The workers of the Malamatina Winery plant in Thessaloniki have been waging a militant strike for the last four weeks, demanding that the employer sign a collective labor agreement and reinstate 15 employees who were dismissed by the management. According to reports, the management has tried to intimidate the protesting workers with repression and court action, as well as with the arrest of their leaders.
At two federal detention centers in California, more than 50 immigrant workers are on strike over unsafe working conditions and low wages.
“We are being exploited for our labor and are being paid $1 per day to clean the dormitories,” said strikers at a central California detention center in a June statement received by public radio station KQED.
Detained workers, known as “housing porters,” participate in a supposedly volunteer working program while locked up. They use their earnings to pay for the exorbitant cost of phone calls and commissary items like dental floss and tortillas.
In 2021, the Chinese Communist Party celebrated a century of existence. Since its humble beginnings in the Marxist groups of the Republican era to its current global ambitions, one thing has not changed for the Party: its claim to represent the vanguard of the Chinese working class. History, however, tells a more complex story. Spanning from the night classes for workers organised by student activists in Beijing in the 1910s to the labour struggles during the 1920s and 1930s; from the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution to the social convulsions of the reform era to China’s global reach today, Proletarian China reconstructs the contentious history of labour in China from the late imperial era. Each chapter revolves around a specific historical event, making the volume a mosaic of different voices, perspectives, and interpretations of what being a worker meant, and how it was experienced, in China over the past century.
The book, co-edited by Ivan Franceschini and Christian Sorace, is available for purchase from Verso Books or for free download from our website.
Despite nationwide flight cancellations due to weather conditions and labor shortages, the 2022 Labor Notes Conference drew a huge and diverse crowd of more than 4,000 workers from across the globe.
They heard daring tales of organizing, learned strategies for getting a first contract, and joined a joyous Juneteenth celebration. Many workshops were packed, standing room only.
“We are in many ways living through a very hard time, and yet the outlook for working people is hopeful,” said Alexandra Bradbury, editor of Labor Notes, at the Friday night main session. “The terrain has shifted, and there’s a new spirit of resistance. We all feel it. There’s hope in the air.”