Labor expert says union efforts have a ripple effect across industries

From coffee shops to factory floors, the actions by unions are having an impact on wages and benefits.

Art Wheaton, director of Labor Studies at the school of Industrial Labor Relations at Cornell University in New York, said that currently, “Everybody is trying to leverage the economic conditions coming off low unemployment and high inflation.”

Wheaton said when Starbucks baristas started union-organizing drives, that created incentives to boost wages and examine benefits.

“A rising tide lifts all boats,” said Wheaton, even in industries that haven’t had a history of union membership.

While the U.S. may not see a return to the days when 30% of working Americans belonged to unions, recent history shows the effects that labor influence has had.

“If you go back just a few years, the scream was ‘Fight for 15’ — a $15 minimum wage,” said Wheaton, who pointed out that California’s $16 an hour minimum wage is being increased to $20 an hour in 2024.

D.C. already has an hourly minimum wage of $17 an hour. Maryland will hit the $15 an hour mark in 2025, and Virginia will follow in 2026.

In terms of union membership, Wheaton said, “We’re now at 10.1% and if you take out the public sector and you only focus on the private companies, it’s closer to 6%, meaning 94% of private are non-union.”

Despite the fact that Starbucks has “exactly zero collective bargaining agreements so far,” Wheaton said the efforts to unionize did result in change.

After union drives were held at hundreds of it stores, Starbucks pledged in May 2022 to spend $1 billion to boost pay and increase training — but not at stores that had voted to unionize.

Wheaton said young people are involved in many of the drives to expand union membership in places, such as college campuses — from teaching assistants to student athletes.

The momentum for union growth continues, Wheaton said, as workers are trying to make gains “as much as they can while the odds are in their favor.”

Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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