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Starbucks unionization efforts represent the next generation of the labor movement

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Nam Y. Huh
/
AP

Following the first win for Starbucks unions in the state, union organizers speculate this is part of a new wave in the long history of the labor movement in Oklahoma.


A small group of Starbucks union organizers gathered around a laptop in the AFL-CIO headquarters near the state Capitol building as the votes for or against forming a union at the store on 23rd and Robinson in Oklahoma City were counted over a video conference.

Once the count reached ten yeses, they began to cheer. They had successfully formed the first union Starbucks in Oklahoma.

The final vote count was 15-2, a nearly unanimous win that Starbucks union organizer Alyssa Sperrazza said will encourage herself and the other union organizers to keep going.

“It was just the right push that we needed. To see that all the effort we've been putting in, it's going to come to fruition and all of the rough moments over the past six months, it's going to mean something,” said Sperrazza.

Alisha Humphrey, another Starbucks union organizer, said their biggest challenge so far has been fighting misinformation.

“We haven't had really a lot of heavy union busting. It's really just been combating most of the misinformation coming from Starbucks corporate. And then, you know, just instilling confidence into some of the union members and answering their questions,” said Humphrey.

As they are teaching their coworkers about unionizing, the Starbucks organizers are also teaching themselves about organizing.

Sperrazza said union organizing has become like a second job for her.

“I've had to learn a lot on the go. It's involved filling out paperwork, meeting with lawyers, getting a union card signed,” said Sperrazza.

Having little to no prior experience with union organizing, the Starbucks union organizers get help from veterans like Tim O'Connor, the president of the Central Oklahoma Labor Federation. He said he is inspired by the younger generation.

“This Starbucks organizing stuff is probably the most - probably haven't been this excited about something in a long time. It gives me hope for the future,” said O’Connor.

O’Connor has been involved with the labor movement since the 80s. In that time, he’s seen the tire plant where he was a union worker shut down and move to Mexico, the passage of Right to Work, and the decline of union jobs in the state.

While Right to Work does not ban unions - it only says employees may not be forced to join unions - it is associated with the reduction of a once strong union presence in the state. Right to Work was originally brought to the ballot in 1964 when Oklahoma was largely Democratic. It narrowly failed.

Larry O’Dell, the director of communications and development for the Oklahoma Historical Society, said a shift in public perception of labor unions was already well underway when Tim’s plant was closed in the early 2000s.

“President Reagan had successfully broken up the air traffic controllers strike and, and there was kind of this whole cultural blowback going on,” said O’Dell.

By the time Right to Work was brought back to the ballot in 2002, Oklahomans were primed to vote for it.

In the next few years after Right to Work passed, data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows union membership dropped by more than 40 thousand.

But now, support for unions is on the rise with 2021 Gallup poll data showing that nationally, 77% of people ages 18-34 - about the same age as the Starbucks organizers - approve of unions.

Humphrey said Millennial and Gen Z workers are supporting unions at a higher rate because they’ve witnessed economic collapse early on in their lives which has left them disillusioned with the current system.

“After seeing the 2008 economy crash and see it barely recover and how people are having to hustle and work like, multiple jobs to get by. And unions are one of the few things that can protect that by offering pensions and offering living wages. I think that's definitely appealing,” said Humphrey.

With more union elections coming up, the future of both Starbucks unions and the greater labor movement in Oklahoma will continue to unfold.

Hannah France started her work in public radio at KBIA while studying journalism at the University of Missouri. While there, she helped develop and produce a weekly community call-in show, for which she and her colleagues won a Gracie Award. Hannah takes interest in a wide variety of news topics, which serves her well as a reporter and producer for KGOU.
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