Sarah Broad was 14 years old and just several months into her job at a McDonald’s in southwestern Canada when a customer berated her about cold fries, started swearing and threw a hamburger at her. No matter how often she encountered that kind of cruelty there, or in jobs at Walmart or Starbucks over the next 12 years, callous managers expected her to just smile through the abuse and keep working.
But when the risk of COVID-19 made the daily outrages all the harder to bear, Broad realized that she needed to take control of her future. She and her fellow baristas at the Starbucks in Victoria, British Columbia, met for dinner one night and decided to join the growing ranks of young workers who are unionizing to build better lives and stronger communities.
Today, about 18 months after becoming members of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 2009, Broad and about 30 coworkers watch with pride as their peers at other Starbucks in the U.S. and Canada form their own unions.
But this generational wave of unionism transcends any one employer or industry. Increasing numbers of millennials and zoomers in the public sector, tech field, gig economy, nonprofit community, education and other sectors also view collective action as the path to a brighter future.
Amid a broken economy that’s left millions behind, these workers want decent wages and benefits, along with a voice on the job and the respect their labor earns. Too often, workers struggle to make ends meet, sometimes despite juggling two or more part-time jobs, while enduring the kinds of abuse that Broad encountered at one employer after another.
“This isn’t unskilled labor,” Broad said, referring to service workers. “They are working very hard.”
Just as Broad and her colleagues hoped, the union made a quick and crucial difference, helping the workers achieve not only wage increases but also a much safer work environment.
Early in the pandemic, a manager ordered one of Broad’s coworkers to remove a face shield—saying it wasn’t company-approved personal protective equipment (PPE)—even though the barista feared passing COVID-19 to an immunocompromised roommate.
Broad said that incident infuriated other workers and helped to catalyze the union drive. In the end, they negotiated a contract that established a health and safety committee, giving them real input into PPE and other protections.
And Broad, who’s serving as Local 2009 unit chair, noted that the contract ensures the implementation of a company policy banning customers who harass workers. “The policy was always there,” she said, “but it was never followed.”
After joining unions, young members keep fighting for justice inside and outside of the workplace.
Tim Brazzel took up videography as a hobby when he was 13 and continued learning the craft as he got older. Last year, he jumped at the chance to put those skills to work for his fellow members of USW Local 7600 during a vital contract fight with Kaiser Permanente.
The health care giant wanted to implement a two-tier wage system that would pay less to new hires, exacerbate staffing shortages and threaten patient care. Ignoring the union’s demand for wage justice, Kaiser also intended to continue paying Local 7600 members—many of them workers of color—less than counterparts doing the exact same jobs at facilities in other communities.
“I felt like it was an insult,” said Brazzel, a master scheduler at Kaiser, noting the health system had previously praised the workers for putting their lives on the line during the pandemic.
“They were calling us ‘heroes’—that was the term they threw around—but they weren’t treating us like heroes,” he added. “They were looking to downgrade our benefits and everything we worked so hard to bargain for.”
Brazzel created a series of gripping videos relating workers’ sacrifices and the drive for a fair agreement. The videos helped to sustain members during the months-long battle and got the workers’ story out to the public.
“We’re fighting,” he said he wanted fellow union members to remember each day.
“We kept voicing that. ‘We are fighting against the wage gap. We are trying to close it.’ I really needed to do my best to keep my brothers and sisters inspired and energized,” Brazzel said.
In the face of the membership’s unwavering solidarity, Kaiser dropped demands for a two-tier wage system and agreed to a fair contract that, among other improvements, makes significant progress toward addressing the wage disparities.
Brazzel considers it an important victory in a much wider battle for social justice.
Today’s young workers grew up amid the push for a $15 national minimum wage and the Black Lives Matter movement. Some, like Brazzel, experienced their own mistreatment at the hands of the police.
They share a desire for change. And they see unions as a way to achieve it.
Unions fight favoritism and discrimination. They raise pay for women and people of color. Union workers have affordable, quality medical insurance, raising the overall health of their communities.
And union members work hard to lift up the marginalized, as Brazzel and his coworkers have done by rallying for civil rights and holding monthly food distributions for struggling families.
“Everyone matters,” Brazzel explained.
Broad and Brazzel feel immense gratitude for the previous generations of union activists who struggled to build a fairer society. Now, they feel a responsibility to continue the fight and help raise up the next wave of leaders.
“This is about our future and the future of those who come after us,” Brazzel said.
This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.