Most weekend mornings, Jaz Brisack gets up around 5, wills her semiconscious body into a Toyota Prius and winds her way through Buffalo, to the Starbucks on Elmwood Avenue. After a supervisor unlocks the door, she clocks in, checks herself for Covid symptoms and helps get the store ready for customers.
“I’m almost always on bar if I open,” said Ms. Brisack, who has a thrift-store aesthetic and long reddish-brown hair that she parts down the middle. “I like steaming milk, pouring lattes.”
The Starbucks door is not the only one that has been opened for her. As a University of Mississippi senior in 2018, Ms. Brisack was one of 32 Americans who won Rhodes scholarships, which fund study in Oxford, England.
in public support for unions, which last year reached its highest point since the mid-1960s, and a growing consensus among center-left experts that rising union membership could move millions of workers into the middle class.
white-collar workers has coincided with a broader enthusiasm for the labor movement.
In talking with Ms. Brisack and her fellow Rhodes scholars, it became clear that the change had even reached that rarefied group. The American Rhodes scholars I encountered from a generation earlier typically said that, while at Oxford, they had been middle-of-the-road types who believed in a modest role for government. They did not spend much time thinking about unions as students, and what they did think was likely to be skeptical.
“I was a child of the 1980s and 1990s, steeped in the centrist politics of the era,” wrote Jake Sullivan, a 1998 Rhodes scholar who is President Biden’s national security adviser and was a top aide to Hillary Clinton.
By contrast, many of Ms. Brisack’s Rhodes classmates express reservations about the market-oriented policies of the ’80s and ’90s and strong support for unions. Several told me that they were enthusiastic about Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who made reviving the labor movement a priority of their 2020 presidential campaigns.
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Even more so than other indicators, such a shift could foretell a comeback for unions, whose membership in the United States stands at its lowest percentage in roughly a century. That’s because the kinds of people who win prestigious scholarships are the kinds who later hold positions of power — who make decisions about whether to fight unions or negotiate with them, about whether the law should make it easier or harder for workers to organize.
As the recent union campaigns at companies like Starbucks, Amazon and Apple show, the terms of the fight are still largely set by corporate leaders. If these people are increasingly sympathetic to labor, then some of the key obstacles to unions may be dissolving.
suggested in April. The company has identified Ms. Brisack as one of these interlopers, noting that she draws a salary from Workers United. (Mr. Bonadonna said she was the only Starbucks employee on the union’s payroll.)
point out flaws — understaffing, insufficient training, low seniority pay, all of which they want to improve — they embrace Starbucks and its distinctive culture.
They talk up their sense of camaraderie and community — many count regular customers among their friends — and delight in their coffee expertise. On mornings when Ms. Brisack’s store isn’t busy, employees often hold tastings.
A Starbucks spokesman said that Mr. Schultz believes employees don’t need a union if they have faith in him and his motives, and the company has said that seniority-based pay increases will take effect this summer.
onetime auto plant. The National Labor Relations Board was counting ballots for an election at a Starbucks in Mesa, Ariz. — the first real test of whether the campaign was taking root nationally, and not just in a union stronghold like New York. The room was tense as the first results trickled in.
“Can you feel my heart beating?” Ms. Moore asked her colleagues.
win in a rout — the final count was 25 to 3. Everyone turned slightly punchy, as if they had all suddenly entered a dream world where unions were far more popular than they had ever imagined. One of the lawyers let out an expletive before musing, “Whoever organized down there …”
union campaign he was involved with at a nearby Nissan plant. It did not go well. The union accused the company of running a racially divisive campaign, and Ms. Brisack was disillusioned by the loss.
“Nissan never paid a consequence for what it did,” she said.(In response to charges of “scare tactics,” the company said at the time that it had sought to provide information to workers and clear up misperceptions.)
Mr. Dolan noticed that she was becoming jaded about mainstream politics. “There were times between her sophomore and junior year when I’d steer her toward something and she’d say, ‘Oh, they’re way too conservative.’ I’d send her a New York Times article and she’d say, ‘Neoliberalism is dead.’”
In England, where she arrived during the fall of 2019 at age 22, Ms. Brisack was a regular at a “solidarity” film club that screened movies about labor struggles worldwide, and wore a sweatshirt that featured a head shot of Karl Marx. She liberally reinterpreted the term “black tie” at an annual Rhodes dinner, wearing a black dress-coat over a black antifa T-shirt.
climate technology start-up, lamented that workers had too little leverage. “Labor unions may be the most effective way of implementing change going forward for a lot of people, including myself,” he told me. “I might find myself in labor organizing work.”
This is not what talking to Rhodes scholars used to sound like. At least not in my experience.
I was a Rhodes scholar in 1998, when centrist politicians like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair were ascendant, and before “neoliberalism” became such a dirty word. Though we were dimly aware of a time, decades earlier, when radicalism and pro-labor views were more common among American elites — and when, not coincidentally, the U.S. labor movement was much more powerful — those views were far less in evidence by the time I got to Oxford.
Some of my classmates were interested in issues like race and poverty, as they reminded me in interviews for this article. A few had nuanced views of labor — they had worked a blue-collar job, or had parents who belonged to a union, or had studied their Marx. Still, most of my classmates would have regarded people who talked at length about unions and class the way they would have regarded religious fundamentalists: probably earnest but slightly preachy, and clearly stuck in the past.
Kris Abrams, one of the few U.S. Rhodes Scholars in our cohort who thought a lot about the working class and labor organizing, told me recently that she felt isolated at Oxford, at least among other Americans. “Honestly, I didn’t feel like there was much room for discussion,” Ms. Abrams said.
typically minor and long in coming.
has issued complaints finding merit in such accusations. Yet the union continues to win elections — over 80 percent of the more than 175 votes in which the board has declared a winner. (Starbucks denies that it has broken the law, and a federal judge recently rejected a request to reinstate pro-union workers whom the labor board said Starbucks had forced out illegally.)
Twitter was: “We appreciate TIME magazine’s coverage of our union campaign. TIME should make sure they’re giving the same union rights and protections that we’re fighting for to the amazing journalists, photographers, and staff who make this coverage possible!”
The tweet reminded me of a story that Mr. Dolan, her scholarship adviser, had told about a reception that the University of Mississippi held in her honor in 2018. Ms. Brisack had just won a Truman scholarship, another prestigious award. She took the opportunity to urge the university’s chancellor to remove a Confederate monument from campus. The chancellor looked pained, according to several attendees.
“My boss was like, ‘Wow, you couldn’t have talked her out of doing that?’” Mr. Dolan said. “I was like, ‘That’s what made her win. If she wasn’t that person, you all wouldn’t have a Truman now.’”
(Mr. Dolan’s boss at the time did not recall this conversation, and the former chancellor did not recall any drama at the event.)
The challenge for Ms. Brisack and her colleagues is that while younger people, even younger elites, are increasingly pro-union, the shift has not yet reached many of the country’s most powerful leaders. Or, more to the point, the shift has not yet reached Mr. Schultz, the 68-year-old now in his third tour as Starbucks’s chief executive.
She recently spoke at an Aspen Institute panel on workers’ rights. She has even mused about using her Rhodes connections to make a personal appeal to Mr. Schultz, something that Mr. Bensinger has pooh-poohed but that other organizers believe she just may pull off.
“Richard has been making fun of me for thinking of asking one of the Rhodes people to broker a meeting with Howard Schultz,” Ms. Brisack said in February.
“I’m sure if you met Howard Schultz, he’d be like, ‘She’s so nice,’” responded Ms. Moore, her co-worker. “He’d be like, ‘I get it. I would want to be in a union with you, too.’”
After the company threatened to bring in replacement workers, the employees were dismissive. “No one can find workers now — where do they think they’ll find 400?” Ms. Glazar, the local union official, said shortly before the strike ended. “That’s the only thing that keeps us smiling out there.”
There were also indications that Heaven Hill was running low on inventory as the strike wore on, crimping the company’s ability to age and bottle alcohol that it produced in Louisville. “We could see the truck movement had slowed down from week one to week six — there were not near as many trucks in and out,” Ms. Glazar said.
Josh Hafer, a company spokesman, said, “There may have been some small-scale products impacted, but not to any large degree.”
Still, the workers were under enormous stress. Their health benefits ended when their contract expired, and some workers found their insurance was no longer valid while trying to squeeze in a final doctor’s appointment.
And while jobs in the area appeared plentiful, many workers preferred to stay in the whiskey-making business. “I like what I do, I enjoy everything about bourbon,” said Austin Hinshaw, a worker who voted to strike at the Heaven Hill plant. “I have worked at a factory before, and it’s not my thing.” In late October, Mr. Hinshaw accepted a job at a distillery in town where he had been applying for months.
A few days earlier, Heaven Hill management had worked out a new agreement with the union. The proposed contract included a commitment to largely maintain the existing overtime pay rules for current workers, though it left open the possibility that future workers would be scheduled on weekends at regular pay, which grated on union members. The company also offered a slightly larger pay increase than it had offered just before the workers’ contract expired in September.
In a statement, Heaven Hill pointed to the generous health benefits and increased wages and vacation time in the new contract.
The top wage for a Ford assembly line worker represented by the United Auto Workers is $32 an hour under a contract the company and union reached in 2019. Unionized workers at parts factories typically make less than those assembling cars.
Other big automakers are also pouring billions into battery and electric car plants. G.M., which said this year that it aimed to end production of internal-combustion vehicles by 2035, plans to build four battery plants in the United States over the next few years. Ford expects electric models to make up 40 percent of its production by 2030.
Even companies that have resisted electric cars have been changing their tune. Toyota Motor, in a sudden shift in strategy, said this month that it planned to spend billions of dollars over the next decade to build battery factories and hoped to sell two million electric cars a year by the end of the decade. Previously, Toyota planned to focus on making hybrid cars and trucks and expressed doubts that fully electric vehicles would take off.
Several other automakers, including Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Hyundai and Stellantis, which was formed by the merger of Fiat Chrysler and France’s Peugeot, are also investing billions of dollars to produce electric vehicles.
“All these companies are building battery plants because you have to have your own production if you’re going to make E.V.s in high volume,” said Mike Ramsey, a Gartner analyst. “The fact they are spending billions of dollars means they’re saying: ‘There’s no turning back. We’re really going to do this.’”
But Mr. Ramsey said it was not clear how quickly consumers would embrace electric vehicles, which are still more expensive than conventional cars and trucks even after federal and state incentives. Charging stations will also have to expand significantly as more electric models hit the road.
“There’s grounds to have real concerns about where demand will actually be,” Mr. Ramsey said.
Ford’s new truck plant and battery factory in Tennessee will be in Stanton, about 50 miles northeast of Memphis. To be called Blue Oval City, the campus will cover six square miles, substantially larger than the Ford Rouge plant that Henry Ford built in the Detroit area a century ago. The Tennessee campus is expected to employ 6,000 people and will house suppliers and a battery recycling operation as well as the truck and battery factories. Ford and SK Innovation will invest $5.6 billion at the site.
Employees at yet another of New York City’s major museums have taken steps to form a union.
This time the organizing effort is taking place at the Brooklyn Museum, where a proposed union would represent a mixture of full- and part-time workers. The Technical, Office and Professional Union, Local 2110, U.A.W. filed a petition Tuesday with the National Labor Relations Board asking for a vote on the union.
The proposed bargaining unit includes about 130 employees, Maida Rosenstein, the local’s president, said. Among them are curators, conservators, editors and fund-raisers, who have full-time salaried jobs; and part-time educators, visitor services workers and gift shop employees, she said, adding that there may be others who are misclassified as independent contractors when they are technically part-time employees.
Natalya Swanson, a conservator at the museum who has taken part in the organizing effort, said that workers are concerned with, among other issues, job security, pay equity and having a clear path for promotion.
“People see many advantages to having a more democratic voice in the institution,” she said. “We recognize that we have the ability to advance the conditions for everyone in the workplace.”
George Floyd, the Brooklyn Museum home page included a message reading: “We stand in solidarity with the Black community. We stand against police brutality and institutional and structural racism.”
A recently opened show, “The Slipstream: Reflection, Resilience and Resistance in the Art of Our Time,” aims to examine power and to contemplate “the confluence of the devastating effects of the pandemic, civil unrest across the United States, a contested presidential election and unchecked climate change.”
As the pandemic prompted layoffs and furloughs at museums across New York City, people at the Brooklyn Museum were among those who lost jobs, Swanson said, though she did not know the precise number of employees affected by layoffs.
moved to form a union with Local 2110, which already represents workers at institutions like the Museum of Modern Art, the New Museum and the New-York Historical Society.
But production is only one piece of the puzzle. The transition away from gas-powered vehicles rests on convincing consumers of the benefits of electric vehicles. That hasn’t been easy because the cars have higher sticker prices even though researchers say that they cost less to own. Electricity is cheaper on a per mile basis than gasoline, and E.V.s require less routine maintenance — there is no oil to change — than combustion-engine cars.
The single biggest cost of an electric car comes from the battery, which can run about $15,000 for a midsize sedan. That cost has been dropping and is widely expected to keep falling thanks to manufacturing improvements and technical advancements. But some scholars believe that a major technological breakthrough will be required to make electric cars much, much cheaper.
“There’s a good sense that at least for the next maybe five years or so they’re going to keep declining, but then are they going to level off or are they going to keep declining?” Joshua Linn, a professor at the University of Maryland and a senior fellow with Resources for the Future, an environmental nonprofit, said about battery costs. “That won’t be enough, so then that’s given rise to a lot of attention to infrastructure.”
The federal government and some states already offer tax credits and other incentives for the purchase of electric cars. But the main such federal incentive — a $7,500 tax credit for the purchase of new electric cars — begins to phase out for cars once an automaker has sold 200,000 E.V.s. Buyers of Tesla and G.M. electric cars, for example, no longer qualify for that tax credit but buyers of Ford and Volkswagen electric cars do.
The Biden administration has released no details about its proposed E.V. tax credits.
Another big concern is charging. People with dedicated parking spots typically charge their E.V.s overnight at home, but many people who live in apartments or have to drive longer distances need to use public charging stations, which are still greatly outnumbered by gas stations.
“The top three reasons consumers give for not buying E.V.s are lack of charging stations, time to charge, and the cost of E.V.s,” said Sam Abuelsamid, an analyst at Guidehouse Insights. “They seem to be really emphasizing all three. So, over all, it looks very promising.”
There are well over 100,000 gas stations in the United States, most with multiple pumps. Mr. Biden’s plan calls for a national network of 500,000 electric vehicle chargers within the decade, up from about 41,000 charging stations with more than 100,000 outlets today, according to the Energy Department.
The most recent figure for the median wage in the greater Birmingham, Ala., was nearly $3 above Amazon’s pay at its warehouse in Bessemer, despite Amazon promoting that most rank-and-file workers there make around $15.50 an hour.
It is common for employers facing a union vote to emphasize the generosity of their wages and to suggest that workers could be worse off if they unionize, Noam Scheiber reports for The New York Times.
The catch is that wages at plants that have successfully avoided unionization have tended to be substantially higher than the typical wage in their areas, reinforcing workers’ sense that they had something valuable to lose.
Veteran production workers made $23.50 an hour at a Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., in 2019 when unionization was considered there.
The comparable figure was $23 at Boeing’s South Carolina facility when workers voted on a union.
At Nissan’s Mississippi plant during the vote there, also in 2017, the number was $26.
The union lost in all three cases.
By contrast, unions have been successful when companies have held down wages. During the first half the 2010s, workers unionized at several auto parts suppliers in Alabama and elsewhere in the South, often citing low pay and benefits as the impetus.
roughly two-to-one ratio. Workers at the plant complained of wages that started as low as $9.70 an hour for temporary workers and topped out at $15.80 for full-time employees.
“Workers always say this: It’s about respect, recognition,” said Gary Casteel, the U.A.W.’s former second-ranking official, who helped oversee much of its organizing in the South. “That’s not the case. It is about the money. Everybody wants to get paid more.”
Workers and artists at Studio in a School, a nonprofit group founded more than 40 years ago to teach art in public schools, have organized an effort to join a union.
The National Labor Relations Board will send ballots to eligible employees on Friday, the first step of an election by mail to determine whether Local 2110 of the United Auto Workers will represent a handful of full-time administrative staff and about 100 artists who work as part-time instructors with one-year contracts.
Those instructors want more predictability in work assignments and greater transparency in scheduling decisions, said the local’s president, Maida Rosenstein, adding: “In the pandemic, that became a very critical issue.”
Alison Scott-Williams, the president of Studio in a School NYC, wrote in an email message, “We have entered into a voluntary election agreement where employees will exercise their choice in this matter.”
New Museum, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, have formed unions in recent years.
Agnes Gund, a prominent philanthropist and president emerita of the Museum of Modern Art, founded Studio in a School in 1977 as a response to cuts to arts education budgets brought on by a financial crisis in New York City.
Gund, who is known for supporting progressive causes, is still on the organization’s board. So are other art world figures, including Dorothy Lichtenstein, who was married to Roy Lichtenstein and is the president of a foundation named after him, and Tony Bechara, El Museo del Barrio’s board chair emeritus.
Today, the organization’s instructors teach art forms like drawing, painting and print making to about 30,000 students in New York City public schools. It has also exhibited work by students at Christie’s New York and the Asia Society Museum.
Union officials said Studio in a School had hired a law firm, Klein Zelman Rothermel Jacobs & Schess, that lists “preventative and union avoidance measures” among other services on its website.
Several employees said they had been required by management to join video meetings at which it was suggested that unions may be more interested in collecting dues than in helping workers.
“While we are out promoting social justice in marginalized communities through art, they are engaging in a very aggressive anti-union campaign,” said Kathy Creutzburg, an artist who said she had taught with Studio in a School for 22 years.
Scott-Williams said the meetings were designed “to understand the issues motivating our employees.”
Another artist, Victoria Calabro, who said she had taught with the organization for 14 years and supports the unionization effort, said she sought greater transparency on a host of issues, such as how many hours artists can expect to work.
“We love what we do,” she said. “We just don’t want to be in the dark in terms of how decisions are made.”