Labor Movement Means More Than Unions

Since the end of the Covid-19 pandemic, headlines have focused on union organizing victories at Starbucks and Amazon. But a recent New York Times story declaring “New York Delivery Workers Are Getting a Bump in Pay” reminds us that workers outside the union movement are part of the labor movement too. However important, unions are just one part of a larger labor movement that consists of all workers who collectively struggle to improve their conditions of employment, whether through union based collective bargaining or by taking to the streets for political action. New York’s delivery workers provide a good example of the latter.

New York City’s more than 60,000 gig delivery workers, who navigate through hazardous traffic on electric bikes, currently net about $11 per hour, including tips, after deducting expenses. That’s significantly less than New York’s $15-hour minimum wage. But not for much longer. On June 12, Mayor Eric Adams and the New York City Department of Consumer and Worker Protection (DWCP) announced that the minimum wage for food delivery workers in New York City will be $17.96 per hour before tips beginning on July 12, 2023, and increase to $19.96 on April 1, 2025. Thanks to the political efforts of the delivery workers, New York has now become the first major city in the country to guarantee a minimum wage for gig delivery workers.

How did the delivery workers achieve this milestone? Delivery gig workers are independent contractors who work primarily for Door Dash and Grub Hub. Since they are not employees, they are not protected by federal labor laws. They lack collective bargaining rights and do not have unemployment insurance or workers’ compensation. To get a decent minimum wage and better working conditions, political action was their only option. They turned to the City government for relief. The Workers Justice Project (WJP) – a workers’ center funded in part by the City Council – assisted first by creating an educational center in Brooklyn to inform these mostly immigrant workers of their legal rights as workers. The WJP then initiated a successful organizing campaign that eventually enabled workers to form a new organization, Los Deliveristas Unidos. With the backing of the Service Employee International Union (SEIU) and the Transport Workers Union (TWU) and support from a coalition of community groups, the delivery workers launched a political campaign. They lobbied the Council and held mass public demonstrations designed to bring their plight to the public. In September of 2021, the City Council responded to their efforts by passing six bills that provided a decent minimum wage, public shelters with bathrooms, and more transparency from the company apps that track their activity and pay them. The DWCP delayed implementation until July 12, 2023, in order to review thousands of public comments. The May 23 issue of CUNY’s New Labor Forum provides a detailed analysis of the workers’ successful struggle. But the point of the case is clear: unions played an important role in the workers’ battle, but workers had to take political action independent of SEIU and TWU. In short, the labor movement means more than the union movement.

While New York’s delivery workers were making real gains through political action, union efforts at Amazon and Starbucks have stalled. Despite all the media attention, only one Amazon warehouse is unionized, and it has not yet negotiated a first contract. Several other organizing attempts at Amazon failed, including a nearly 2 to1 union defeat at a warehouse near the unionized plant on Staten Island. The Starbucks union drive has organized about 300 stores of its more than 15,000 locations, but not one of these newly unionized Starbucks stores has negotiated a first contract. Advised by the high-powered union busting law firm of Littler-Mendelson, Starbucks uses the strategy of delay to fight unionization. The company doesn’t negotiate in good faith, harasses current union workers until they quit, and replaces them with new employees less amenable to unions. This anti-union strategy is working: several of the unionized Starbucks, including one of the first to vote in a union, have recently voted to decertify. If workers don’t give up and kick the union out, Starbucks can close stores, which is just what it did to all the company’s locations in Ithaca, New York, a big college town. Closing stores doesn’t violate labor laws; harassing workers for their union activities does, but legal remedies are slow and unpredictable. Without labor law reform making organizing easier and providing more protections for union activists, the deck remains stacked against unions.

In contrast, New York’s delivery workers are not alone in using their collective power in the political arena to gain a decent minimum wage and improve their terms and conditions of employment on an industry-wide basis. Gig and fast-food workers across the United States – often with the help of unions – have had equal success by taking to the streets to pressure local and state governing bodies. With federal labor law reform unlikely, Starbucks and Amazon workers should consider adding concerted political action to their arsenal of organizing strategies. Collective bargaining is not the only path to a decent wage and good working conditions.

Sidney Plotkin is a Professor of Political Science, Margaret Stiles Halleck Chair of Social Science, at Vassar College. He is the author of many articles and several books, including Veblen's America: The Conspicuous Case of Donald J. Trump (Anthem Press, 2018). William E. Scheuerman is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science at SUNY Oswego. He is the retired President of the National Labor College and past President of United University Professions, the nation's largest higher ed union. A long-time labor activist, Scheuerman has written several books and numerous articles in both scholarly and popular journals. His most recent book is A New American Labor Movement: The Decline of Collective Bargaining and the Rise of Direct Action (SUNY Press, 2021). Read other articles by Bill Scheuerman and Sid Plotkin.