Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

The changing landscape of Virginia labor organizing

People wearing matching shirts sit in an audutorium
Dozens of city workers attend a July Richmond City Council meeting, where members approved an ordinance to allow collective bargaining for city employees. (File photo: Patrick Larsen/VPM News)

Jillian O’Hare has worked at Starbucks for four years — and loved her job prior to the pandemic. 

She took some time off around December 2021, as a Starbucks store in Buffalo voted to unionize. When she returned to work in January, anti-union literature had started to appear in her workplace.  

“Every time I turned around, there was another meeting — or because I'm a supervisor, they were always pulling me off the floor and being like, ‘How can we make it so that you don't need a union?’” O’Hare said. “So, they almost pushed me to want a union by trying to make me not want one.” 

Employees at the Willow Lawn location, where O’Hare works, voted to organize under the Service Employees International Union on April 19, becoming the fifth unionized Starbucks in Virginia. Ten stores in the commonwealth subsequently voted to form unions. 

Starbucks workers aren’t the only ones moving to unionize, though. Labor organizing around the country has increased since the COVID-19 pandemic began, according to the Economic Policy Institute. William Spriggs — chief economist at AFL-CIO, the national federation of unions — said this is because service workers have begun to learn their value. 

“The pandemic ignited indignation on the part of these workers and led them to the conclusion that they had to stand on their own,” Spriggs said. “That helped motivate them to want to unionize, to make sure they did have a voice, because they weren't being listened to.” 

Meghin Martin, who works with O’Hare at the Willow Lawn Starbucks, said recent national attention has helped to boost the labor movement’s visibility. Some of that attention hit the commonwealth when Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) attended the Richmond Unity Fest in solidarity with Starbucks workers back in April at The National. 

“It wasn’t even like we asked him to come, he was like, ‘I’m coming to Richmond,’” Martin recalled. “I think that … brought everybody together and gave everybody a good feeling.” 

Martin said Starbucks has yet to respond to demands originally sent by the union on April 22 and sent again on July 26 — 96 days after the initial contact.  

Organizing employees

State law maintains that no one can be forced to join a bargaining unit or pay dues. This could dilute bargaining power, according to employment lawyer Broderick Dunn. Regardless of a worker joining a unit, he said, they still reap the benefits of collective bargaining. 

Spriggs compared this to a world where taxes were optional, but public services still existed.  

“It undermines the ability of the unions to function and it limits what unions can do, because it limits how much money they have,” he said. 

According to Spriggs, the origin of "right-to-work" laws is rooted in racism. Labor unions must represent all workers with a bargaining unit. Historically, this bothered some white workers, who worked alongside Black workers; they did not want to bargain for higher benefits for themselves if they also had to bargain for their Black co-workers.  

Virginia’s laws on labor organizing have changed significantly in the past few years. 

In 2020, the General Assembly passed a bill allowing certain public sector workers to lobby for the right to unionize. Some people were left out of this provision, though: higher education workers, state workers and state-paid contractors. 

After the bill was passed, Richmond workers lobbied city council to vote to allow them to unionize. 

Longtime city employee Everett Fields has been organizing in Richmond for decades. He said there is no doubt in his mind that Richmond city workers will be successful in forming a union and helping other localities do the same.  

“When we get our union, hopefully the dues we pay will go to organize Chesterfield, Henrico, Charles City — all the way down to North Carolina,” Fields said. 

Felicia Boney, with Richmond Social Services, said the interest in unionization is there, but historically, fear of retaliation has been an impediment to garnering support.  

Going forward, the number one goal, she said, is mitigating people’s concerns.  

“We actually hold hands and walk them literally through the process, and we answer any questions that they have,” Boney said. “We’ve held Zoom meetings, we’ve given out literature. We’ve invited them to different types of meetings to give them the basic information that they need to make an informed decision. But it’s never pressure.” 

Boney, who has worked for the city for 27 years, expressed concern over how the ordinance recently passed by city council separates bargaining units into five groups. She said it could make it harder to reach the 30% voting threshold needed to set a union election.  

She said it would be useful to combine the labor and trades, professional, and administrative and technical units — which were specified in the ordinance — to be able to bargain together, instead of independently. 

The effects of organizing

Unions are specifically helpful in setting wages. Most introductory economics lessons say an unregulated labor market will balance supply and demand, and set wages where they should be. But Spriggs said that’s too simple and likens it to a cartoon. 

“In that cartoon, then yes, if you raise the minimum wage, that's probably going to be bad, but we don't live in Disneyland,” Spriggs said. “In the real world, if you raise the minimum wage, this is good because the monopsony power of the firms is suppressing wages and suppressing output.” 

A monopsony is similar to the well-known monopoly, however it controls different aspects of the market. Monopoly power increases when there are fewer sellers, while monopsony power increases when there are fewer buyers. 

If a monopoly is the only seller of an item, it can jack up the price. And on the flip side, if a monopsony is the only buyer, it can lower the price. In the labor market — where firms buy employees’ time — when there are fewer employers, wages decline. According to a 2019 study, U.S. industries became about 70% more concentrated between 1997 and 2014. 

Unions have the power to bargain for higher wages and other desires of their constituencies, Spriggs said. In workplace or public health emergencies, like COVID-19, unions might also be able to prevent firms from furloughing employees who no longer can be convinced to return to work. 

While unemployment levels in Virginia hover near prepandemic levels, about 3%, the labor force participation rate is around 3% lower than it was before the pandemic, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This means fewer people are actively seeking work.  

“There are all sorts of things that happen in this situation because the firms didn’t have a way to sit down and talk to people who have the authority to speak on behalf of the workers,” Spriggs said. “That’s another important thing unions do … . [T]hey help to create a work culture that helps the productivity of the firm.” 

Kristin Reed, a Virginia Commonwealth University professor and labor advocate, said in addition to benefiting workers, organizing is one of the most effective ways to bridge generational gaps. Outside of labor organizing, most protest movements consist of people with similar backgrounds, political views and beliefs. 

Reed said this unique structure gives her hope. 

“You have to map your workplace, you have to understand everybody who’s there, and you have to actually talk to everybody, even if they're very different from you — even if they feel politically disaligned [sic],” Reed said. “Your job as labor organizer is to find and build common ground, so you can grow your movement and organize everyone.” 

Even if people find themselves unable to collectively bargain, Reed said there are other avenues to gain power. When it comes to the right to bargain, anyone is legally allowed to approach their employer to communicate concerns. 

“I think it's really important for public sector workers in Virginia, even if they don't have collective bargaining rights, to recognize that they still have collective power,” Reed said. 

Disclaimer: Katharine DeRosa is a student at Virginia Commonwealth University. She has not previously taken a class with Kristin Reed. 

Related Stories