/Mississippi employees face hardships while unionizing

Mississippi employees face hardships while unionizing

The 23-year old went through several job interviews, where she shared her chosen name. She didn’t get calls back. In May of that year, the Starbucks in her college town became a lifeline. Starbucks, a Seattle coffee chain, had policies that supported trans workers. It also offered health insurance that could pay for hormone replacement therapy. The chaotic environment created by the lack of store managers was a result. Morgan’s job was made miserable by the one manager that did stay. Morgan stated that Morgan was transphobic. Morgan said that he would say things such as “my appearance gives away the fact that I’m trans.” “He’d refer to my appearance as a man to make me feel inferior.” The new manager took over at the Starbucks outside the University of Mississippi. He had never worked in a Starbucks before. Morgan was struck by the trend of unionizing at Starbucks locations across the country. Morgan kept racking up reasons to unionize: inconsistency in scheduling, unclear performance metrics, and pay that has yet not reached $15 an hour. Morgan is a Mississippian who has lived her whole life. Federal data shows that only 5.5% of Mississippians are unionized. Morgan’s understanding of the state was theoretical. She learned bits of American history through grade school and while a UM public policy major. She felt more confident in her efforts to unionize Starbucks as she watched the number grow. Seven other union members have been elected since a Buffalo Starbucks voted in December 2021 to form a union. Over 100 others have begun petitioning for their own union. Morgan wondered, “Why not Mississippi?” Morgan and eight of his coworkers signed a letter on March 3 to the CEO, expressing their intention to unionize and pointing out common problems at their workplace: poor leadership, understaffed shifts and insensitive comments and treatment from management. They are part of a nationwide movement that is being led by young people in consumer-oriented jobs with high turnover and not the blue collar trades usually associated with union representation. Amazon workers on Staten Island won last week’s election. Workers who wrap Amy’s burritos and box Hersheys chocolate in Virginia are also organizing and demanding better pay and conditions. Jarod Roll, a University of Mississippi labor historian, said that the grass roots efforts that are being seen are real and part of larger patterns. It is difficult to find living-wage jobs, or jobs that will allow them to purchase a home or repay debts. This is partly due to the intense anti-union efforts of the last 50 years. Brenda Scott, president of the Mississippi Alliance of State Employees, has been an advocate for workers for over 30 decades. Her group once represented 6,000 workers in 1989. Because workers have lost interest and left, that number has fallen to less than 2,000. She said it’s difficult to keep people involved rather than “on-the bench”. Mississippi’s so-called Right-to-Work laws allow workers to opt out of joining recognized unions and to pay dues. This is similar to the South. Scott stated that the Mississippi labor movement still has much to do. “Our numbers are low.” Mississippi had approximately 7,400 union workers in 2020. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, this number fell to 5,900 in 2021. The number of Mississippians who are unionized has barely reached 7% over the past decade. Scott stated that “we older leaders need to engage with younger leaders.” They are not only the leaders of tomorrow, but they are the leaders of today,” Scott said. The 2017 Canton Nissan plant union campaign in Mississippi was a failure. Just one month after Morgan announced at the Oxford Starbucks that he was going to strike, Hattiesburg workers staged the first ever strike in a federally contracted call center. They are also working to unionize. The Mississippi teachers and boilermakers are among the few unions that exist. They also include the Teamster brotherhood and the Teamster brotherhood. Some of these unions are more symbolic than actual. They are small compared to the overall workforce. Morgan is experiencing something that those who have spent decades mobilizing workers in Mississippi know: Workers aren’t familiar with union concepts and capabilities and are afraid of losing their jobs and health insurance. Morgan stated that it is difficult to define what a union is in Mississippi, where there isn’t a real bottom-up organizing model. “The Nissan plant was a big thing in the news so it is often brought up: It didn’t work there so why should it work here?” The Nissan campaign targeted thousands in one plant. It was the culmination of over a decade’s worth of hard work. Workers voted 2,244-1.307 in favor of the United Auto Workers on election day. Sanchioni Butler was a UAW organizer who spent 10 years building support from clergy to community leaders and also educating workers about unions. Butler stated, “I discovered that fear is real.” “I have seen the fear of losing everything that they have made some of the most powerful people collapse,” Butler said. Phil Bryant and other business leaders strongly opposed union efforts at Nissan. They claimed it would reduce the company’s ability to compete, which in turn would affect its workers. A National Labor Relations Board complaint alleged that a supervisor threatened workers with lost wages, and the closure of the plant if they joined a union. Nissan refuted this allegation. Workers and managers at Maximus Federal in Hattiesburg have had a similar back-and-forth, with workers answering calls about Medicare. Butler stated that workers in the South must stand together and show courage to win. “Somebody must take a stand. An organizer cannot do this. Workers are the ones who can vote in their best interests.” The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ annual report on unions found that nonunion workers earned about 83% of union workers’ weekly wages — $975 versus $1169. Oxfam, an organization that fights poverty, recently found that only 45% of Mississippians earn less than $15 an hour. Although Maximus workers don’t belong to a recognized union they have put pressure on the company along with other Maximus call centre workers in Louisiana and members of Communications Workers of America. Maximus raised wages to $15 an hour before a presidential Federal Contractor Order required it. The company also reduced its health insurance costs. Shareholders voted to have a third party racial equity audit done to assess the company’s impact in communities of color. Workers, mainly single mothers and women of colour, are pushing for higher wages than the $55,000 federal call center workers earn at the Internal Revenue Service. Maximus doesn’t offer all workers paid sick days. Morgan has not seen a $15 per hour increase in her pay, despite Starbucks promoting investing in baristas’ wages. Morgan said that her and her coworkers still make $12 per hour, with the promise of $15 in the future. Morgan said it is unclear when this will happen. According to a Starbucks spokesperson, the starting wage for baristas this summer will be $15 per hour. According to the chain, the average wage will then be $17 per hour. Morgan would like to work full-time at Starbucks, but the store doesn’t offer it. She works for a food delivery company to ensure that she makes at least $600 per week, just enough to pay her rent and other expenses. Morgan stated that different managers had said different things, referring to hourly wage increases. Morgan said that it was difficult to hold managers accountable. A union could help with such issues. Either workers can sign enough union cards for the National Labor Board to host an election or they can have enough cards signed so that no election is necessary. Maximus workers and the local Starbucks are not at this point yet. It has been difficult to get there in Mississippi for a long time. Roll, a UM professor, said that there was a deliberate effort to eliminate unions and demonize them. This goes back to the 40s/50s. “And it all comes back to maintaining Mississippi’s cheap labor economy.” This economic structure was created by Mississippi’s dependence on slaved Black people, and their low-wage work through sharecropping and tenant farming. In the 1940s, Mississippians of white descent were working in timber, grain processing and other trade jobs. These unions had influence. Hall claimed that those gains were destroyed by politicians and business leaders who made communist accusations during McCarthy’s McCarthy era. Roll stated that there is a history of them being here and that they were successful. This often gets forgotten. “And the suppression that those unions faced by employers and politicians shows how dangerous they were,” Roll said. Morgan was inspired by Jaz Brisack’s work in the Buffalo Starbuck unionizing effort. Without Brisack, Morgan isn’t certain she would have had the courage to organize. Morgan’s manager, whom workers claim made racist and sexist remarks, was placed on leave. Morgan claimed that Starbucks compliance and ethics investigators did not call Morgan to talk about what had happened, until workers shared their letter regarding unionization publicly. Morgan was recently informed that the manager had been fired. According to Starbucks, the manager was fired for “policy violations.” The company made a statement to Mississippi Today. It said that it had “separated itself” from him. Starbucks has said it is supportive of workers’ rights to unionize, but believes a union would bring down their “partners.” Starbucks also stated that it continues to “listen to and learn” from its stores. Morgan stated that hours are still inconsistent for her, her coworkers and herself. To keep her health insurance, she must work 20 hours a week. She’s not likely to reach 25 most weeks. Morgan stated that not many jobs will support transgender people in Mississippi. It’s not easy to quit and find something better — a choice critics often jump on.