people in winter jackets walk on the sidewalk past the window of an REI Co-Op location
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JANUARY 25: REI's flagship New York store stands in Lower Manhattan on Jan. 25, 2022, in New York City. Workers at the outdoor company's SoHo location have filed to hold an election to unionize. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Nikki Taylor wanted to work at a Starbucks in the Memphis, Tennessee, area because of its progressive image and medical benefits. She had heard that the store made official company Pride-themed T-shirts and supported the movement for Black lives. Taylor, who started working at Starbucks two years ago, thought it would be “a great place” to be employed, where she’d be accepted and have a flexible work schedule to accommodate caring for her child. When the 2020 pandemic came along, she discovered that an attractive company image has its limits, especially concerning policies that actually affect employees’ well-being. 

Service workers like Taylor are increasingly unionizing, frustrated by expectations that workers continue to put themselves at risk to keep businesses running and customers served. Instead of responding with pay increases, better health coverage and leave policies, or other needed resources, employers have been swift to embrace union-busting tactics, retaliating against the same workers they’ve heralded as “heroes” and called “family.” 

Taylor and some of her coworkers experienced this hypocrisy firsthand. On Jan 17, they released a statement about their intent to unionize. Less than a month later, after participating in a local TV station interview about their efforts, Starbucks terminated Taylor and six other former partners, who became known as “The Memphis 7,” citing “significant violations of safety and security policies. In response to allegations that this termination was a form a union-busting, a Starbucks press representative stated that “any claims of anti-union activity are categorically false.” 

While workers and organizers stress the importance of collective bargaining to better balance power among workers, managers, and corporate leaders, companies continue to rely on carefully crafted public personas as “progressive workplaces” to avoid responding to workers’ needs and concerns. There are signs of cracks in these public image shields, but workers still face many obstacles in both shifting public perceptions and navigating corporate roadblocks to unionization.

The pandemic reveals company values and priorities

As the pandemic stretches on, unionization efforts are notably on the rise. According to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the number of union representation petitions filed increased 57% in the first half of the 2022 fiscal year, while unfair labor practice charges increased by 14%. Sixty-eight percent of Americans approve of unions, the highest rate since 1965. Since the first successful Starbucks unionization in Buffalo, New York, more than 70 Starbucks locations have joined Starbucks Workers United, while more than 200 stores have filed petitions with the NLRB for an election. 

As a food and beverage establishment, Starbucks is an essential service provider, making health protocols critical to operations, especially to ensure staff safety. However, the work conditions Taylor recalls dealing with after the onset of COVID-19 made her question Starbucks’ workplace safety. According to Taylor, the company’s COVID-19 protocols at the time were if a partner (what Starbucks calls hourly employees) was vaccinated but was asymptomatic and tested positive, there was no obligation to inform their coworkers that they had COVID-19. At the time, masks were mandatory for working partners but not customers, and vaccinated partners who were exposed were still required to come to work. When a coworker tested positive for COVID-19, Taylor says that she was never informed by management—her coworker was the one to tell her, after she’d been exposed for days. That same week, her 8-year-old daughter tested positive, and she had to delay her child’s vaccination by 30 days. To add insult to injury, she also discovered a pay gap between her and another male employee with comparable experience.

Taylor tried to share her concerns, responding to weekly Starbucks employee surveys by sharing the challenges of being paid less than a living wage, working in an unsafe building, and navigating less than comprehensive COVID protocols. But nothing changed.

Starbucks did not respond to requests for clarification on how their partner surveys were used. They stated that their retail leaders were empowered to modify operations locally that made sense at their locations during the pandemic. They also stated that they do not make their partners work if they are sick, and any partners who “felt that they were exposed or experienced symptoms” should use their isolation pay, “without a positive test.” 

Unionizing wasn’t necessarily the first choice for service industry workers looking to improve their workplace conditions. Like Taylor, many had previously tried other methods to vocalize their needs before committing to unionizing. As the pandemic took hold, workers became frustrated by the increasing divide between the “progressive” public images of their employers and the way workers were treated when they asked for support and safety measures.

Claire Chang, a visual presentation specialist at outdoor gear store REI Co-Op’s SoHo location and one of the organizing committee members of the REI SoHo unionization efforts, says that she and others noticed a change in company values when they handled workers’ pandemic concerns.

“[The push to unionize] didn’t just come out from 2020, but that was when we really felt it was time to take action,” Chang said. “We [saw] our coworkers getting sick. There was a lot of pushback when it came to employee safety [from COVID-19].” REI told Prism that the company had grounded their actions in guidance from the CDC and local experts and officials, in many cases going “above and beyond” the guidance and local ordinances to protect employees and customers. 

Some corporations implemented policies quietly, giving workers little to no opportunity to provide input. Trader Joe’s crew member and Trader Joe’s United organizer, Maeg Yosef, an 18-year veteran of the Hadley, Massachusetts store, says that when she first started working for Trader Joe’s, the annual contribution to retirement benefits for eligible crew was about 15% of annual earnings. Five-to-eight years ago, it dropped to 10%. Now, it’s potentially zero—a change that corporate leadership announced through an internal newsletter. 

“For retaining employees, retirement is a huge part of our compensation,” Yosef said. “Those benefits show that the company wants to have a long-term relationship with its workers.”

Trader Joe’s did not respond to inquiries about changes to their employee retirement plans.

“Woke” union-busting and branding hypocrisy

The increase in worker unionization efforts coincides with a rise in corporate profits and the era of socially conscious brand development for corporations. In 2021, Starbucks reported record sales, exceeding pre-pandemic numbers. Trader Joe’s has expanded and surged in popularity in polls among customers. Many corporations are hiring social media managers to increase their presence and brand voice online—from LinkedIn to TikTok—with accounts run by teams of savvy Gen-Zers

Surveys among chief marketing officers by Deloitte show that a primary motivation for companies to take a stand on high-profile social issues is to demonstrate that it cares about more than profits to attract and retain customers and partners. However, whether or not companies apply the principles they preach to how they treat workers is often a distressingly different matter. 

Despite making public statements committed to “ending systemic racism” during the George Floyd protests in the summer of 2020, baristas at Starbucks were not allowed to wear pro-Black Lives Matter T-shirts or pins because doing so would advocate a “political, religious, or personal issue,” “amplify divisiveness,” and incite “violence.”  In June, Starbucks hands out official Pride T-shirts and pins, while trans employees often find little support from leadership despite being harassed by their coworkers and deadnamed by company software. Trans employees also report difficulties accessing coverage for gender-affirming treatment. 

This dichotomy between public image and private practice and the use of glossy PR campaigns to distract from how companies are failing their workers extends to how they’ve responded when workers attempt to form unions. While baristas advocated for unionization, Starbucks continued pushing TikToks and Tweets to emphasize its new planet-positive initiatives rather than addressing worker concerns. 

Relying on social media to keep the shine on their public image doesn’t always work out as companies hope. After Starbucks rolled out content featuring their new summer drinks for their millions of TikTok followers, users recently left comments criticizing its treatment of workers and expressing support for unions like “Pay a living wage” and “Nothing tastes better than collective bargaining!”

REI has spent years carefully constructing a corporate brand whose mission is to “awaken a lifelong love of the outdoors, for all,” regularly promoting climate change awareness and awarding annual grants to local organizations to increase the inclusivity of the outdoors. On the day of the REI SoHo’s union vote on March 2, REI Co-op released an official press statement relaunching its lifetime co-op membership program for customers, promising more resources to make outdoor culture more inclusive and accessible. 

While the outdoors has been historically less accessible to nonwhite and other marginalized communities, making outdoor culture more socially inclusive has nothing to do with workers’ need for a bargaining position or improving institutional inequities that directly impact workers. For instance, Tyler Mulholland, a sales lead at REI SoHo, says that “so-called [worker] protections” mean little when individual management biases lead to employees of color not being chosen for career opportunities because the company wants “to invest in people who we want to invest in or who we think will be good long term.”

In a request for comment, REI press told Prism that the company examined its own hiring practices in 2021 to minimize bias and identify areas of change, implementing an audit and plans to increase the number of people of color in manager-and-up level interview pools. REI then piloted changes to retail hiring practices in five key markets to increase BIPOC representation in retail leadership and has now expanded these efforts across their entire retail fleet. Their response also noted that REI is also working on improving the retention and career development within the workplace, particularly for “Black and African-American employees.”

“They’re trying to become more diverse in their leadership,” Chang said. “But ultimately, it’s still a very white cis, male, kind of dominated industry.”

The right to bargain with a “progressive” company

As minimum wages across the country stagnate and inflation increases, workplaces like Trader Joe’s, REI, and Starbucks may appear to offer better conditions and benefits than their competition. Management often promotes the idea that a union would break the connection between the company and their workers, and that workers should trust that corporations have their best interests at heart. However, the rhetoric of being “better” distracts from the power imbalance inherent in corporate environments when it comes to decisions that affect workers’ welfare. 

In March 2020, Trader Joe’s Chairman and CEO Dan Bane sent a letter to all employees dismissing the unionization movement by workers as a “distraction” during “the current unstable environment in America.” Bane alleged that the union campaigners were seeking to “capitalize” and “create … discontent, by claiming only joining their union will protect the pay and benefits you currently enjoy.” 

However, while Trader Joe’s offers health insurance and paid time off for employees, those benefits are directly tied with the number of hours employees can work, and during the pandemic, the realities of this policy rapidly shifted. According to Yosef, in cases of COVID sickness, workers had to use their own paid time off. Since health care qualification was directly tied to working about 30 hours per week, taking time off to play it safe for a potential COVID-19 exposure risked a worker’s coverage. 

“There is always a tension,” Yosef said. “Can I go to that funeral and maintain my health insurance or get COVID and maintain my health insurance? You just have to be very careful and track your hours because you could potentially lose your coverage.” 

Additionally, Trader Joe’s crew members are asked to fill out an annual survey that asks them questions about their work, their management team, and more. But Yousef says that this year was the first time that the survey didn’t ask any questions about the crew experience or work environment. Essentially, corporate leadership, not unions, broke a previously established channel of communication between workers and company leaders.

Similarly, REI was recently criticized for attempting to co-opt DEI language to discourage unionization efforts. On a company podcast, Wilma Wallace, who introduced herself as REI’s “chief diversity and social impact officer” despite listing her title as general counsel, corporate secretary, and vice president on LinkedIn, and CEO Eric Artz claimed that unionization would negatively impact corporate leadership’s ability to communicate with workers and resolve their concerns. However, workers say that the way in which REI management does communicate with employees suggests that their concerns are less about “communication” and more about maintaining control. 

According to Mulholland, there’s a distinct difference between how REI leadership talks about “starting from a place of respect” and how they create an atmosphere hostile to employee questions or critiques. During a Zoom press conference meeting on February 23, 2022, the REI workers talked about captive audience meetings—mandatory meetings held by managers to dissuade employees from forming unions in which the manager holds power over meeting attendees. According to REI workers, they’re often forced to stay at these meetings until 10:30 p.m., without eating food, or are sometimes cornered in the fitting room to have union-critical conversations. 

“​​They want us to feel uncomfortable, surveilled, and pressured,” said Steve Buckley, a retail sales specialist. 

When asked for clarification, REI claimed that the most recent store meetings were previously scheduled training sessions with some “non-store leaders” for the membership relaunch. The meetings had been intentionally scheduled to take place after store hours ended and that “employees were paid for their time.” 

“We did not hold any meetings in the fitting rooms,” REI said.

It’s not about being better than others

As more stores push for unionization and the right to bargain, advocates hope to convince consumers and fellow coworkers that even if their company is among the leaders in their field, workers still need a voice. Many believe that unions don’t inherently harm the relationship among workers, managers, and corporate leadership, as unions are composed of employees themselves. And there are encouraging signs that the momentum among workers is gaining traction.

After a delay, the Memphis Starbucks store voted to unionize 11-3 on June 7. A court hearing was scheduled for June 9 to determine whether to reinstate the fired Memphis 7. The U.S. District Judge granted Starbucks’ motion on June 22 to reopen the record to add a June 14 bargaining letter to the evidence, a piece that could undermine the argument for reinstatement under national labor laws. According to Taylor, at the time of this article’s release, there was no definite timeline of when workers will hear the court’s decision. She still continues to speak and advocate for union organizing across the country. In May, Starbucks announced expanded pay and benefits for store employees; however, these changes wont apply to unionized stores or those in the process of filing for union elections. These actions seemingly use collective bargaining to withhold benefits and discourage further organizing, discriminating against unionized partners.

The NLRB conducted an in-person vote for REI SoHo in the breakroom on March 2, 2022, with an overwhelming 86% majority voting to become the first REI store to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU). 

“[W]e believe ‘a life outdoors is a life well lived,’ and in order for that to be viable and accessible to us, we need to be at the bargaining table alongside REI leadership to work out a collective bargaining agreement that works for us,” Chang said in the released press statement. 

With “well over 30%” of store workers submitting their cards, the Trader Joe’s staff in Hadley filed for their NLRB petition on Wednesday, June 8. Yosef remarked on how, although Trader Joe’s argues that it’s still taking care of crew members, what workers need to not only survive, but thrive, has changed dramatically, especially in the wake of COVID. In today’s world, corporations need to do more than rely on the old and increasingly untrue argument that they’ll “never have it better anywhere else.”

“Even if that were true, the bottom line is that the crew aren’t getting their needs met,” Yosef said. “People are angry and struggling. That’s where I find the disconnect.”

Helen Li is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles. Her podcast work and multilingual writing focus on youth civic engagement, international affairs, labor, technology, and identity. Her words have...