Before taking the stage at a rally for worker’s rights in Cambridge Sunday afternoon, Sen. Bernie Sanders popped over to Starbucks with a megaphone and a Teamsters hat. At a unionized Starbucks location in Boston, Sanders joined a picket line that has gained national attention as the longest-running strike of its kind in the nation.
“When you are out here on this picket line, you are speaking not just for yourselves, you’re speaking for millions and millions of people in Boston and Vermont and all over this country,” Sanders told the workers, who reached day 36 of their strike on Sunday. “People are sick and tired of seeing the people on top do phenomenally well while they fall further and further behind.”
Teamsters President Sean O'Brien and Association of Flight Attendants President Sara Nelson have joined Sanders on a tour of cities “where workers are fighting, to lift up those fights,” said Nelson, who accompanied Sanders at rallies this summer in Philadelphia and Chicago.
“We've seen all this strike activity and union organizing activity coming out of Boston,” Nelson said, “and it's inspiring a lot of other people to take action.”
Sunday’s rally on the Cambridge Common — a crowd of roughly 1500 gathered in the park — highlighted local union battles, including testimony from members of the MIT Graduate Student Union, the Massachusetts Nurses Association and Boston-based Starbucks unions.
Labor issues are “the same everywhere,” Nelson said, each union group representing a small piece of a larger movement that has grown across the country, spurred on by frustrations that emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“What COVID did was shine a light on profits into the pockets of the banks and the Wall Street profiteers while the working class wages remained flat or actually went down,” Nelson told GBH News. “During COVID, workers were treated as disposable, and that has created solidarity everywhere.”
Union election petitions increased by 57% in the first half of fiscal year 2021-2022, according to the National Labor Relations Board. Unlikely victories at Amazon and dozens of Starbucks locations have fueled the union boom. Workers have reached across industries, exchanging strategies and seeking solidarity within a national network.
When workers at Pavement Coffeehouse launched a petition in June of last year to become the first unionized independent cafe chain in the state, baristas working to unionize Starbucks locations in Buffalo, New York, took notes from Pavement organizers, who ratified their contract with management earlier this month.
“Things like Pavement, these are the things that actually inspire other workers to take action,” Nelson said. “The corporate class would have us believe that we're incredibly divided, that we’re on the brink of our democracy collapsing and a potential civil war — yet when you get out there into America and you start to talk about these issues of the working class, there is there is an overwhelming majority support, a supermajority support. I think that these organizing drives are actually a reflection of what's really happening in America.”
As one of the nation’s biggest college towns, Boston has grown into a hub of union organizing, Nelson says, driven by a fired-up younger generation. “You can see it happening here,” she said. “The labor movement has always been its most vibrant when young people take charge of it.”
The shape — and strength — of unions has changed, Teamsters president Sean O’Brien said, recalling his experience growing up in a Teamsters family in Boston, hearing stories from four generations of union truck drivers and a mother who instilled a sense of union solidarity into him as a child.
“It's time we do a better job of educating the next generation of workers, because most of the next generation of workers that we're seeing in the workplace right now have never had a generational connection to the unions,” O’Brien said during Sunday’s rally. “They don't know how hard it is to protect and preserve and improve working conditions. We have to teach them about the struggle.”
The struggle, Sanders told the crowd, comes down to a battle between an “enormously powerful oligarchy” and working-class people who make their coffee and deliver their packages. Echoing the foundation of his 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns, Sanders emphasized the power of unions in the fight for universal health care, raising the minimum wage and eliminating student debt.
“The billionaires have the money, we have the people,” Sanders said. “Our job now, for the sake of our children and future generations, is to stand together and to proclaim loudly and clearly, as Woody Guthrie did a long time ago: This land is our land."