BRANDI ALDUK (SPEAKING TO A CROWD): What do we got?CROWD: Worker power!BRANDI ALDUK: What do we got?CROWD: Worker power!

STEVEN GREENHOUSE (FORMER NEW YORK TIMES LABOR REPORTER): Id say were seeing the biggest surge in unionization in decades.

ARCHIVAL (UNITED AUTOMOBILE WORKERS FILM, 1936-1937):NARRATOR: Unions have brought wage earners so much security, freedom and dignity.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: The only other time in American history when we saw such clamor to unionize was in the 1930s during the Great Depression.

ARCHIVAL (UNITED AUTOMOBILE WORKERS FILM, 1936-1937):NARRATOR: This is Flint. This is how history looks in the making.

BRANDI ALDUK (SPEAKING TO A CROWD): What do we want?CROWD: Unions!BRANDI ALDUK: When do we want it?CROWD: Now!

BRANDI ALDUK: My name is Brandi Alduk and Ive been a Starbucks worker for three years. So yeah, this is, like, the union town hall now. This is our union or town equivalent. Heres usually where I just do the union meetings. Oops, dont judge me, laptop is really broken.

NARRATION: During the pandemic, as employees feared for their safety and their jobs, Brandi Alduk joined a wave of American workers trying to form unions at restaurants, retail stores and warehouses.

BRANDI ALDUK (POINTING TO HER LAPTOP): So, see I have, oh not on this. I even have, like, Starbucks stickers weve designed.

BRANDI ALDUK: As we started opening back up, there were a lot of altercations with customers about wearing masks. When people started getting Covid in the store, there was no protection because we were just like literally on top of each other.

ARCHIVAL (PIX11, 3-18-22):NEWS REPORT: These employees at the Astoria Boulevard Starbucks have become the first in Queens to file for a union election.

BRANDI ALDUK: Ive had people destroy bathrooms. Ive had people shoot up in the bathroom. So it is usually the people who are getting, like, paid the least amount of money handling those types of situations.

ARCHIVAL (NBC, 12-9-21):NEWS REPORT: About a hundred workers at three Starbucks stores in Buffalo are deciding whether to form a union.


BRANDI ALDUK: But to see that Buffalo was actually able to succeed made it be like, if Buffalo can do it, then why cant I do it?

NARRATION: In 2021 and 22, filings for new unions in the U.S. surged 53 percent. Workers pushed to organize at companies from Starbucks to Amazon, Apple to Tesla. Its a burst of union activism in hard economic times, much like the 1930s.

ARCHIVAL (1935):NEWS REEL NARRATOR: In the 1920s, the great American word was prosperity. Now the 30s have begun and there is a new word: depression.

NARRATION: At the height of the Great Depression, with some 13 million Americans unemployed, President Franklin Roosevelt persuaded Congress to support his New Deal reforms, including the 1935 National Labor Relations Act. Also known as the Wagner Act, it guaranteed private sector workers the right to form unions.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: In the 1930s, the economy was changing in another fundamental way. There was the real creation of mass production industries. A lot of workers who felt they werent being treated well, who werent unionized, and thought how do we make things better?

ARCHIVAL (UNITED AUTOMOBILE WORKERS FILM, 1936-1937):WORKER: Never again will we work in this job under conditions as they have been in the past.

NARRATION: After hundreds of Michigan auto workers died during a record-breaking heat wave in 1936, General Motors workers demanded union representation.

ARCHIVAL (UNITED AUTOMOBILE WORKERS FILM, 1936-1937):NARRATOR: General Motors had tried everything – spies and intimidation.

NARRATION: GM resisted and, in December, workers at factories in Flint organized a strike, with a twist.

ARCHIVAL (UNITED AUTOMOBILE WORKERS FILM, 1937):NARRATOR: The workers had sat down. They would not work and they would stay in the factory until General Motors signed the contract with their union. Company representatives ordered the men off private property. The men sat.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: The traditional strike is leave your post, you go outside, you carry a picket sign. Some smart workers said, You know, theres this new tactic, a sit-down strike, where if we sit in, a new worker cant come and do our job and I cant lose my job. Because were sitting in.

ARCHIVAL (UNITED AUTOMOBILE WORKERS FILM, 1936-1937):NARRATOR: This is not vandalism you see there. They are breaking these windows to let the air in and to let the tear gas out.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: General Motors got the police to attack the workers one day and break the windows and throw in tear gas. The tear gas was blown back in the face of the cops and the cops went away.

ARCHIVAL (UNITED AUTOMOBILE WORKERS FILM, 1936-1937):NARRATOR: This is how the sit-down strike was won, 41 days after the workers stood up to General Motors by sitting down.

SAMIR SONTI (ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF URBAN STUDIES, CITY UNIVERSITY OF NEW YORK): The biggest effect of this strike is not just that it resulted in the unionization of General Motors, but that it spread to so many other industries, so many other cities.

NARRATION: In 1937, nearly two million Americans staged strikes in industries from textiles to steel, and union membership surged. But with the decline of manufacturing and the growth of a largely non-union service sector, unions lost ground. Today, just ten percent of workers are in a union even as polls show public support for them is at a six-decade high.

SAMIR SONTI: Major gains in unionization have typically come in bursts, historically. And theyve often occurred in exceptional times. The Great Depression is obviously one example. For a lot of workers, the pandemic has changed how they think about their jobs, how they think about their employer. It has changed their willingness to fight back.

ARCHIVAL (MSNBC, 4-1-22):NEWS REPORT: Amazon workers at a warehouse in Staten Island voting today to unionize.

NARRATION: After the initial success at Amazon and Starbucks, groups of workers at Microsoft, REI and Trader Joes also voted to unionize. But momentum has slowed.

ARCHIVAL (CBS PHILADELPHIA, 11-6-22):NEWS REPORT: Workers at a Philadelphia Home Depot have rejected a proposal that would have formed the first labor union at the retail chain.

NARRATION: Unions have historically had less success organizing workers in the healthcare, tech and service industries that now dominate the U.S. economy. Some of those workers are skeptical that joining a union would bring better wages and benefits. And today, as in the 1930s, efforts to form unions face pushback from companies.

ARCHIVAL (6-10-22):HOWARD SCHULTZ (FORMER CHAIRMAN & CEO, STARBUCKS): The customer experience will be significantly challenged and less than, if a third party is integrated into our business.

NARRATION: Both Starbucks – and Amazon – have been found in violation of federal labor laws for threatening and firing workers who engage in union activity. The companies deny wrongdoing.

BRANDI ALDUK (SPEAKING TO A CROWD): No contract!CROWD: No coffee!BRANDI ALDUK: No contract!CROWD: No coffee!

BRANDI ALDUK: No one went into this campaign expecting an easy win. Youre up against a multibillion-dollar company.

NARRATION: Brandi Alduk and her co-workers won their vote to unionize, but after almost a year still didnt have a contract. The National Labor Relations Act requires Starbucks to negotiate, but cannot compel the company to reach a deal.

BRANDI ALDUK: It will be long, it will be hard, and maybe it wont be the numbers that we are expecting going forward, but I have hope. Otherwise, why would I be organizing?

SAMIR SONTI: Its very hard to form a union in the United States. This has been a constant from the late 19th century to the present.

ARCHIVAL (UNITED AUTOMOBILE WORKERS FILM, 1936-1937):WORKER: Were fighting for our rights. And were staying here until we win.

MARCHER (SPEAKING TO A CROWD): If we dont get it!CROWD: Shut it down!

SAMIR SONTI: Something historically is happening by workers shifting the center of gravity the way that workers in the 1930s shifted the center of gravity.

BRANDI ALDUK (SPEAKING TO A CROWD): You will stand in solidarity with us.

SAMIR SONTI: And maybe these will be the ones that win. Maybe these will be the ones that set up a future victory. Maybe they wont. But something is happening that hasnt been happening in a very long time.