In Buffalo, New York, Starbucks workers set up a storefront office to coordinate union drives. The young baristas leading the effort have made a straightforward case: Starbucks cannot earn billions for its shareholders without the labor of the people who take orders, learn the names of regulars, and serve them their drinks just the way they like them. At the same time, workers cannot afford rent, utilities, and the basic costs of living on the wages they earn at many Starbucks stores.
People who are fed up with a broken system are coming together to share their experiences with one another and build power for collective action.
By forming a union, workers can leverage their power to negotiate better wages and working conditions. Starbucks, meanwhile, has done everything in its power to defend its stores against the rising tide of unionization. One worker claimed in a viral TikTok video that, in response to their union drive outside of this storefront, the company sent in “over 100 out-of-state managers” to “threaten and intimidate” employees. Nevertheless, Starbucks lost: Workers at two stores in Buffalo voted to form a union. Since then, Starbucks workers in other states, from Arizona to Virginia, have followed suit.
When we visited the workers in Buffalo this past February, we told them what we’ve told workers across the nation: If society calls you “essential” and asks you to work on the front lines during a pandemic, it is immoral to then treat you as though you are expendable.
Starbucks workers are organizing for the same reason Amazon workers are fighting to form a union, care workers are lobbying for a $15 minimum wage, and truck drivers are striking for better pay. And resignation statistics tell the same story: The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that more than four million U.S. workers walked off their jobs in November 2021 alone—an all-time high since it began documenting this data in 2000.
Our economy isn’t facing a “labor shortage” but a labor uprising. And it is being led by people who are refusing to cooperate with a political economy that depends on them without treating them like human beings.
During the past forty years, the share of earnings for the nation’s top 1 percent has doubled, while the wages for 90 percent of workers have barely kept up with inflation. Even before COVID-19, there were 140 million low-income people living in the United States, making up about 40 percent of the population, including more than half of the nation’s children. And poor communities have borne the brunt of the United States’ excessive COVID-19 death toll.
Yet poverty is hardly ever talked about in U.S. public life. In a time when pundits bemoan the ways we are “more divided than ever,” Republicans and Democrats have largely agreed to ignore poverty, albeit for different reasons.
Republicans call for cutting taxes and reducing regulations, arguing that companies with a stronger bottom line will invest in their employees. They blame poor people for not succeeding when the stock market is growing and unemployment is low.
Meanwhile, Democrats claim to be the party of working people while side-stepping the catastrophe of poverty because they think it makes the United States—and them—look bad. They talk endlessly about “those striving for the middle class,” often reinforcing the narratives that blame poor people while pandering to Wall Street campaign donors who do not want to pay their fair share in taxes.
This is the false consensus that has been laid bare in a nation that has accounted for 20 percent of the world’s known deaths from COVID-19 while representing just 5 percent of its population. It is this pandemic of poverty in the United States that has catalyzed an uprising of low-wage workers.
After visiting Starbucks workers in Buffalo, we traveled to Selma, Alabama, where veterans of the civil rights movement were commemorating the 1965 march to Montgomery for voting rights. There, Fred Redmond of the AFL-CIO spoke about how the labor movement had responded to Martin Luther King Jr.’s call to join this fight.
Half a century later, the corporate-sponsored assault on voting rights has everything to do with the rising power of organized low-wage workers. In 2021 alone, at least nineteen states passed thirty-four laws restricting access to voting, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. And bills to restrict voting access were introduced in nearly every state.
This is not simply Jim Crow 2.0. While many of these voter suppression tactics target Black voters, they disproportionately impact young people, women, and poor people of every race. Their aim isn’t to disenfranchise all African Americans, but rather to dilute the coalition of Black, brown, Asian, Native, and white voters who voted together for change in 2020.
The corporate media has told the story of Donald Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party as a populist revolt, but exit polls that year showed that poor and low-income voters preferred Biden over Trump by fifteen points. Low-wage workers overwhelmingly support policies that would raise the minimum wage, restore the Child Tax Credit, and invest in health care, affordable housing, and high-quality public education for every American.
The Republican-led attack on voting rights and democracy is an effort to fight back against the coalition of Americans who want policies that level the playing field and reconstruct a society where everyone can thrive.
But we must also remember the efforts to impede these policies are often bipartisan. In the U.S. Senate, two Democrats—Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona—have stood with Republicans to block federal voting rights protections and the President’s Build Back Better agenda, which would have been a down-payment on many of the economic justice issues that motivate poor and low-income voters.
In April of this year, we joined a week-long march to Grant Town, West Virginia, where Manchin has used his political power to keep open a coal-fired power plant that burns dirty coal it buys from Manchin’s family business. In one of the poorest states in the nation, we listened to poor and low-income people name the ways poverty, racism, and ecological devastation intersect to lock people into death-dealing compromises.
It is not true that we are a nation divided between “red states” and “blue states.” We are plagued by poverty in every state, pitted against each other by politicians who too often do the bidding of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. But the chamber and its elite allies are challenged by movements that bring people together to reclaim our government and demand that people be treated with dignity.
Two years ago, when millions of people marched in U.S. cities for racial justice, corporations ran ads praising “Black Lives Matter” while continuing to back politicians who pass policies that do not value Black lives. The converging movements for voting rights, living wages, ecological justice, and public investments call for real commitments to racial justice. We will not settle for an ad campaign; we demand a revolution of values.
We have each invested our lives in the nation’s civil rights and labor movements. For decades, we have watched national progressive organizations look back to the 1960s and 1970s, hoping to plan a coordinated response to regressive policies that could galvanize another mass movement for justice.
But this is the most hopeful moment we have witnessed in forty years because the movements that are converging have grown out of the experience of everyday people who know their lives aren’t working. Paid organizers aren’t going out to find people who will support a union drive or lobby for a single bill on Capitol Hill. Instead, people who are fed up with a broken system are coming together to share their experiences with one another and build power for collective action.
We know from history that every major stride toward a more perfect union in U.S. history has looked like this. It took the abolitionists decades of organizing and the Civil War to win the passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. The civil rights movement built power through long decades of grassroots campaigns. In both cases, the energy first rose up from communities, bringing people together to force a shift in the public narrative about what was possible.
On June 18, the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival will host its second Mass Poor People’s and Low-Wage Workers’ Assembly on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. Ahead of the midterm elections, we are determined to create a national platform from the fusion of grassroots movements that are emerging to confront a political economy that ignores poverty and an electoral process that has not engaged poor and low-income voters.
If the nation has a chance to see and hear the people we have met across this land, we believe our fellow Americans will not only see, but act. If those who face the worst this nation can offer have come together, maybe we all can unite to revive the heart of democracy and reconstruct a society that works for all of us.