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After forming a union, negotiating a contract can be an uphill battle


Union elections are creating lots of excitement these days. They're happening all over - at Amazon warehouses, at hospitals and colleges and, of course, at Starbucks, where dozens of stores have voted to unionize. But winning the union election is only the first step. As NPR's Andrea Hsu reports, negotiating a contract can be even harder.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: About this time last year, the staff of the Washingtonian magazine hit peak frustration. They had clashed with their bosses over canceled vacation time. Then came the possibility they'd be forced back to the office. Workers began signing union cards, officially indicating their interest in forming a union.

ANDREW BEAUJON: We had a tremendous number of people sign the cards.

HSU: That's senior editor Andrew Beaujon. Within a few months, it was a done deal. The staff voted 15-2. in favor of joining the News Guild. Now Beaujon knew the next step, getting a contract, would be harder. He says they went in with what they thought were reasonable expectations.

BEAUJON: We thought it would be about a year. Now it seems wildly optimistic. I mean, the pace that we're going at now, we haven't agreed on a single thing yet. We haven't even agreed on what holidays we're going to take off.

HSU: And they certainly don't agree on how the negotiations are going. Beaujon thinks management is intentionally stalling the process, and he's felt that way from the start.

BEAUJON: I'd say probably the first minute (laughter).

HSU: Meanwhile, the Washingtonian told us they think good progress is being made, and they look forward to a contract. Of course, getting a contract is the whole point of having a union. The idea is by banding together, workers get more say in their pay, their benefits, their job protections. It's called collective bargaining. Kate Bronfenbrenner, a labor historian at Cornell, says for employers who've never had a contract before, every issue is a fight.

KATE BROFENBRENNER: You're having to negotiate every word.

HSU: Her research has shown that fewer than half of organized workplaces had collective bargaining agreements within a year of their election. A third still had no agreement after two years. In reality, talks can go on and on and on unless one party or the other declares impasse.

BROFENBRENNER: Impasse is where neither side can move. Anybody that's had a 2-year-old knows what impasse is.

HSU: At that point, the employer has the option of implementing their last, final offer. The employees have the option to strike. Now, there are times when collective bargaining goes smoothly. That's what happened at SPoT Coffee, a regional chain in upstate New York, in 2019.

KAY KENNEDY: I feel like we lucked out with how pleasant the experience was.

HSU: Kay Kennedy was working for SPoT Coffee in Buffalo at the time. Despite a contentious union campaign, the negotiations that followed were fairly friendly and productive. Within eight months, the workers had a contract that for them underscored the power of unions. They got in writing a pay structure based on seniority, minimum guaranteed tips and one of Kennedy's priorities, just cause.

KENNEDY: They have to show just cause for any actions that they take against a worker.

HSU: Meanwhile, over at Starbucks, the company is still trying hard to dissuade workers from unionizing by telling them, you don't need a union. Starbucks even announced new benefits and policies, such as expanded training and credit card tipping but for nonunion stores only. Despite this, the union wins at Starbucks continue to pile up. And organizer Michelle Eisen, a barista at the first Buffalo store to unionize, says that's helping them at the bargaining table.

MICHELLE EISEN: Every single time we win another store, we have a little bit more power behind us.

HSU: Now, even at her store, which is the farthest along, contract negotiations have only just begun. Still, she says, the fact that they're happening at all gives her hope. Andrea Hsu, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.