Erica Smiley, executive director of Jobs With Justice, speaks at an event at Syracuse University's Lender Center on Oct. 24. Photo credit: Eddie Velazquez

With the steady surge in union organizing at workplaces throughout the country in the last year, New York state labor leaders and scholars gathered at Syracuse University on Monday to unpack a question on the minds of many workers: how can labor organizing continue to grow?

Amazon Labor Union President Christian Smalls said workers need to be ready to mobilize at their place of employment.

“We have to make sure that we’re protecting ourselves as workers,” he said, explaining that people fighting for different social justice causes like women’s rights and gun law reform are still workers at the end of the day. “The only thing we can do to stop corporate greed and to save our country is withhold our labor.”

Smalls, alongside Starbucks Workers United organizer Jaz Brisack, and Labor Action Tracker Director Johnnie Kallas, discussed the lessons learned in the last year of labor organizing as a panel at the 2022 Lender Center Conversation at Syracuse University. 

From October 2021 to the end of March this year, union representation petitions filed at the National Labor Relations Board went up to 1,174 from 748 the year prior, signifying a 57% increase.

In Onondaga County, workers at places including Starbucks, Crouse Hospital, Communication Service for the Deaf have filed 12 petitions to form a union, according to NLRB records dating back to January last year.

Brisack, who helped unionize the first Starbucks stores in Buffalo last year, said the Starbucks Workers United campaign caught fire unexpectedly, adding she hopes more union movements can gain similar traction.

“The campaign grew very quickly in a completely partner-to-partner way, where we would get on Zoom calls with people in all these different regions of the country, walk them through how to form an organizing committee and how to get started,” she said. “ We also need to keep organizing. There’s no such thing as an unorganized workplace. There’s only workplaces that haven’t been organized yet.”

Erica Smiley, the executive director of Jobs With Justice and the Lender Center Conversation’s keynote speaker, said the future for established unions is to diversify and embrace racial diversity in union campaigns.

“These unions have infrastructure, they have apprenticeship programs,” Smiley told Central Current, noting established unions in Syracuse can help younger, more diverse groups of workers by supporting policy options that will pave the future of union organizing.

Smiley, who has helped organize labor campaigns throughout the country, said workers in Syracuse will be drawn to union campaigns if they can see tangible gains for employees across the city.

“But our opposition wants us to see ourselves as very divided, and it’s easy to play into that,” she said. “We all need each other, management needs us just like we need them. There are tons of ways to help to either be in solidarity, or to directly build our own workforce together.”

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