Grace Marvell, a 21-year-old biology major at Appalachian State University, wears a black t-shirt with what appears to be the familiar Starbucks logo with an image embedded in a green circle. Only instead of the face of a smiling siren in the middle, there’s a raised fist holding a coffee tumbler. Circling the image are the words “Starbuck’s Workers United.”
Marvell says she took a job at Starbucks because the company offered more than what other local fast-food companies were offering her, including better pay. At first, she says she loved it. But issues including inconsistent management became a problem, so she and her colleagues took action.
“Back in around March of this year, we kind of got a little bit of a group together, we formed a committee — and we collectively decided unionizing would be the best move for our store,” she says.
They thus joined a nationwide trend of the coffee chain’s workers seeking to organize. The effort has seen mixed results across the country and in North Carolina. In Boone, the vote wasn’t close: 33-2 in favor of joining the union. That’s a pretty rare outcome here. North Carolina has one of the lowest rates of union membership in the country. The only state with a lower rate is South Carolina. Marvell and a colleague recalled the reaction when the votes were counted.
“Everyone was just crying or trying not to cry. Just very excited, shaking," says Marvell. "We couldn’t talk during the vote count. And she just kept pulling out yes after yes. It was … very exhilarating.”
Starbucks released a statement saying the company is listening to employees but still believes it is better without a union between workers and management. The company says it respects its partners’ right to organize and is committed to following the National Labor Relations Board process.
Interest in organized labor is surging across the country. Union petitions are up by more than half over all of last year, according to the National Labor Relations Board, and polling shows public support for unions is the highest it’s been in more than 50 years.
But change may be slow in North Carolina, a historically hard place to organize workers.
Erik Gellman, a historian who studies labor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says two factors have contributed to low union membership in North Carolina.
One is that we’re what’s known as a right-to-work state, which gives the state authority over some union activities, including whether they can compel workers to join a union as a condition of employment. Also, Gellman says anti-union groups in the mid-1900s ran campaigns tying organized labor to communism and corruption.
“I really think that the politics of unionization, as well as the propaganda and the sort of cultural impact of that propaganda over decades, has really led to a dearth of unionization in North Carolina,” he says.
Still, Gellman says some movements managed to find a way, including the drive to unionize R.J. Reynolds workers in Winston-Salem under the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural, and Allied Workers of America.
“[It was] one of the most successful interracial unions of the 1940s that won all kinds of gains for tobacco workers to get them better conditions, living wages, and also fought for social justice and civil rights," says Gellman.
Support for unions has been growing nationally over the last few years, with the pandemic leading many people to rethink the workplace.
Seventy-one percent of Americans support unions, according to results from an annual Gallop poll released last month. That’s up seven percent since the start of the pandemic and is the highest level since 1965.
Yet while the poll found widespread support for unions, it also showed that most non-union members had no interest in joining one.
Walter Olson is among those not yet ready to believe the hype about a union comeback. He tracks labor data as a senior fellow at the Cato Institute’s Robert A. Levy Center for Constitutional Studies.
“The wider trend has been generally for unions to drop, in share of the workforce they represent or that are members of unions,” he says. “And that's been going on for decades.”
Olson says unions have been organizing well in sectors of the economy where they haven’t traditionally drawn membership. Many are smaller employers. That could mean overall membership is treading water, not really growing.
Olson says unions are attracting a different breed of organizers.
“It’s appealing to workers for somewhat different reasons than a generation ago, to different kinds of workers who are at a different stage of their career or want different things out of the workplace than would have been true 20 years ago, 40 years ago, 60 years ago,” he says.
Organizers see possibilities in that cultural change.
“I think we have a great opportunity in North Carolina to grow the labor movement and build worker power,” says MaryBe McMillan, president of the state chapter of the AFL-CIO, the country’s largest federation of unions. She says the face of organizing is changing.
“Traditionally our union base in North Carolina was manufacturing workers,” she says. "But nowadays you see workers in all kinds of occupations joining together to form unions — from video game developers to social media, to journalists, to doctors and health care providers, to store clerks and fast-food workers.”
Even when unionizing efforts succeed, change can be slow. For example, four months after the vote, the Boone Starbucks workers still didn’t have a contract negotiated with the company.
“It’s a waiting game at this point,” Marvell says.
But she says she’s proud to have been a part of something that she believes will make things better for her and her co-workers.