The New Labor Movement: Inside the Resurgence of Union Activism in Columbus

Meet the baristas, librarians, museum workers and other unconventional rabble-rousers shaking up Central Ohio’s pandemic-altered workplaces.

Donna Marbury
Tara Shiman and Kristin McCormick from Worthington Libraries, whose employees voted in October 2021 to form the first library system union in the Columbus area.

When Kristin McCormick had her son in 2015, she used the maximum 12 weeks of leave provided by federal law and all of the sick and vacation days she had accumulated over three years. The adult services librarian at Worthington Libraries’ Northwest branch says that chronic ear infections during her son’s first year made it difficult for her to juggle work and family. With no additional parental leave or paid time off available to her—and what she describes as unspoken pressure from library leadership—she says her husband was forced to manage most doctor visits and time home with the baby.

The experience left her feeling like her employer could’ve done more to help. “The library is considered a pink-collar industry traditionally, and I’ve had the fortune of working with a lot of talented women,” McCormick says. “I’ve seen so many of them leave after having children, because being a caregiver, whether it’s of a child or a parent, is very difficult to do with the leave policies and working hours at the library.”

Still, McCormick chose to stick with her job, which grew even more challenging in the ensuing years. In 2019, management shuffled staffers around the three-library system. McCormick says the reorganization was disruptive to the community, as workers regularly interact with students, seniors and other patrons who rely on the library for a sense of normalcy. Then came the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, adding another layer of uncertainty. This time, it involved librarians handling hundreds of books a day via curbside services while buildings were closed to the public.

That situation became a tipping point, prompting McCormick and her colleagues to take unprecedented action. In October 2021, they voted to form the first library system union in Central Ohio. “It was during those early times in the pandemic that staff really started sharing stories and concerns with each other and realized that so many of us had a lot of the same concerns,” says McCormick, a founding member of the union organizing committee.

McCormick and her colleagues are part of a resurgence in union activism in Central Ohio. Over the past two years, organizing drives have occurred at institutions as diverse as the Wexner Center for the Arts, Habitat for Humanity, Equitas Health and Starbucks stores in Westerville and Downtown Columbus. The Habitat for Humanity effort has stalled—workers at the nonprofit’s ReStore rejected the union by one vote in February 2021—but the others are still moving forward. And though their industries are often profoundly different—from health care to the arts to retail to food service—a common thread seems to run through each workplace: During the pandemic, many employees were deemed “essential,” forcing them to serve coffee, help patients, curate art exhibits and more while a deadly virus made such activities a dangerous proposition.

The local unionization surge also mirrors national trends. In the first half of fiscal year 2022, union election petitions across the country jumped by 57 percent, according to the National Labor Relations Board. The two Starbucks stores, for instance, are part of a long-stagnant drive to organize the coffee giant that has picked up speed at a remarkable rate in 2022. That high-profile campaign, meanwhile, has coincided with one of the biggest U.S. labor victories in decades: In March, the employees of a massive Amazon distribution center in Staten Island, New York, voted to form a union, the first Amazon warehouse to do so. Observers describe the vote as historic, comparing it to the United Auto Workers’ organization of General Motors in the 1930s.

“Typically, when unions are formed it is because the worker actually loves their workplace and wants to be there, but there are certain things that need to be fixed to make it tenable,” says Melissa Cropper, president of Ohio Federation of Teachers, which now represents the Worthington librarians.

Cropper adds that the pandemic has redefined work and the protections that should come with it. “Workers saw that the places that they work for were actually benefiting from COVID.” Even though companies were making record profits, they were making their employees work in unsafe conditions, Cropper says.

Columbus Has a Long History With the Labor Movement

Even though it’s not known as a union stronghold, Columbus has deep labor roots. In 1886, the city was the site of a huge moment in labor history: the founding of the American Federation of Labor, now part of the AFL-CIO, the country’s largest union group. The United Mine Workers, modeled after the AFL, was also founded in Columbus in 1890.

Failure, however, is a big part of the city’s labor lineage, too. In the summer of 1910, nearly 4,000 union streetcar workers flooded Columbus’ streets, demanding increased wages for their difficult, dangerous and low-paying jobs. Peaceful protests turned to riots, and 5,000 Ohio National Guard members were called into the city to defuse the situation. Hundreds of people were reportedly injured during the strike. After four months of protests, union workers gave up in defeat. Many returned to their low-wage jobs or moved to other cities in search of better work conditions.

A 2011 New York Times headline summed up the city’s mixed feelings on labor activism: “In Columbus, Conflicted Emotions on Unions.” It sat atop a story that explored support for unions in the wake of a state bill that cracked down on public sector collective bargaining. A statewide ballot initiative overturned that legislation, but union supporters haven’t been as successful about 40 miles northwest of Columbus in Marysville, the home of Honda’s sprawling manufacturing complex. In the early 1980s, Honda built its first U.S. automobile plant in the region. Since then, the operation has grown into a manufacturing powerhouse, employing about 11,000 people, making it the area’s third-largest employer, according to the regional economic development agency One Columbus. That size—and its symbolism as the first Japanese auto plant in the country—made Marysville a top priority for the UAW. Despite multiple efforts, however, the union has failed to organize Honda’s Ohio facilities, a defeat that has significantly weakened what was once one of the most powerful labor groups in the country.

Indeed, the vanguard of the new labor movement isn’t the UAW and its old-school brethren. It’s a new breed of enthusiastic amateurs, youthful activists and grassroots workers unconnected to big labor, as exemplified by Amazon Labor Union leader Chris Smalls, a former rapper who spearheaded the upstart union’s Staten Island drive.

“Younger folks are seeing that they do want unions,” says Theotis James, a Columbus-based representative for the Transport Workers Union. “They understand that the union is leveling the playing field and that workers’ rights are human rights. These are things that have been said through the years. The basics haven’t changed.”

To be sure, unions aren’t exactly thriving. During its mid-20th century heyday, the AFL-CIO included more than 30 percent of U.S. workers. According to 2021 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, all unions now represent just 10.3 percent of the national workforce. In Ohio, union membership has been in decline for at least a decade—currently 12 percent, or 596,000 workers. But there are some outliers: The number of unionized education, training and library workers increased by more than 30 percent in 2021. And it’s clear that the pandemic has changed workplace dynamics, creating an opportunity for labor activists. More people have quit their jobs over the past two years than at any other point over the past two decades—the so-called Great Resignation—with workers citing low pay, no opportunities for advancement, disrespect at work, child care issues and inflexible hours as top reasons for quitting, according to a 2021 Pew Research survey. A September 2021 Gallup poll indicated that 68 percent of Americans approve of unions, the highest figure since 1965.

“Because of COVID, I think people’s priorities shifted,” says Cropper, of the Ohio Federation of Teachers. “A lot of people were able to spend more time with family, and I think people started valuing their personal space more than they did in the past. People started recognizing that there’s no reason why we can’t have a good job and have a good family life.”

James says people, ultimately, want to balance their quality of life with their work and not have to sacrifice like previous generations. “Union work in 2022 and throughout history brings a balance and fairness to the environment,” James says. “The value of being in a union gives people the opportunity to ascend into the middle class. It gives people the opportunity to have a livable wage, buy a home, perhaps to send their kids to college, go on vacations. All of that used to be out of reach for middle class families.”

A Second Columbus-Area Starbucks Unionizes

For several weeks in 2020, a line of cars snaked around the Starbucks on South State Street in Westerville. It was one of the chain’s only open stores on the northeast side of the city. “We were doing what felt like double the volume of work,” says Gabriel Santohir, a shift supervisor at the Starbucks for the past two-and-a-half years. “At one point, we would have a 45-minute wait in the café and have to turn mobile orders off. There would be piles of food sitting on the handoff area, getting cold. And we were doing everything we could to get the drinks out. It created a really hostile environment for customers and staff.”

Gabriel Santohir, one of the members of the Westerville Starbucks organizing committee. The store’s 30-plus employees started the process of unionizing in May 2022.

Though Starbucks added $3 extra to each worker’s hourly pay across the country during the height of the pandemic, Santohir says “hazard pay” was removed without notice, and the store began cutting hours while reporting record sales. That led Santohir to contact the national Starbucks Workers United, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union that has been leading the national organizing drive at the coffee chain, to learn about the process of starting a union. The Westerville store’s 30-plus employees began the organizing process in May 2022 and voted to join the union in a June 29 vote, according to a tweet from the Joint Chicago and Midwest Board of Workers United

“It’s easy for Starbucks to look like the good guy when across the country, service workers are not treated well,” Santohir says. “The bar’s so incredibly low. I kept hearing of baristas across the country not being able to afford the health insurance benefits that they were promised or not making enough hours to keep those health insurance benefits.

I just feel like as Americans, we have the right to health insurance, and we shouldn’t have to worry about getting enough hours to get the health care that we need.”

If the Westerville store votes in favor of a union, it will become the second Starbucks in Central Ohio to do so. The first, a Downtown Columbus Starbucks on East Broad Street, joined Workers United on May 24. It also is the first location in Ohio to organize, though workers at a Cleveland-area Starbucks voted to unionize a few hours after the Downtown Columbus shop did. Since December 2021, more than 250 Starbucks stores have sought to organize; about 80 of them have been successful.

“We are listening and learning from the partners in these stores as we always do across the country,” says a Starbucks spokesperson about the Columbus-area stores’ efforts. “From the beginning, we’ve been clear in our belief that we are better together as partners, without a union between us, and that conviction has not changed. We respect our partners’ right to organize and are committed to following the NLRB process.”

Previously, Benjamin Baldwin, a barista at the Broad Street store and a member of the union organizing committee, worked as a Starbucks shift supervisor. “The pandemic just showed the fault lines in all of these outstanding issues we had been talking about lightly before,” says Baldwin, who’s worked for Starbucks for 10 years. “Workers talked about unionizing for the past four years, but there was never any momentum to it.”

Baldwin says he wants workers to have more say in store health and safety policies, including mask requirements that would change based on regional spikes in COVID-19 infections. He adds that wage disparity is a top issue in the service industry nationwide, and the new union will advocate for guaranteed work hours once they begin the collective bargaining process.

“I don’t think anyone in my store, even people that are considered full time, are guaranteed to [work] 30 hours a week,” Baldwin says. “Definitely since unionizing, I’ve seen my hours cut drastically. I used to get more than 30 hours every week. And since unionizing, I’ve had my hours cut back to, some weeks, down to under 16.”

Matt Reber (left) and Jo Snyder from the Wexner Center for the Arts. They are part of a group of nearly 40 employees who asked Ohio State University to voluntarily recognize Wex Workers United, formed with AFSCME Ohio Council 8.

Wexner Center Workers Ask Ohio State for Recognition

The Wexner Center for the Arts union drive had a different genesis than the other local efforts: It was inspired by art. In August 2020, the last automobile made at General Motors’ Lordstown complex was parked inside the Wex as a part of photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier’s The Last Cruze exhibit. A collection of more than 60 photographs by Frazier flanked the car, capturing how the plant closing made union workers choose to either stay in Lordstown, unemployed, or uproot their families to other U.S. factories. Walking by that exhibit daily, Matt Reber says he and his Wexner Center co-workers began to see similarities between the union workers’ plight and developing issues at the museum. “There was no getting around it,” says Reber, the Wexner Center store manager and buyer.

Reber also had time on his hands. After being furloughed for several weeks during the pandemic, he began researching organized labor unions and learned that many arts organizations in the U.S. have unions. It’s estimated that more than 20 art museums have formed unions, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Whitney Museum of Art in New York City, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Union workers from museums include security guards, cafeteria workers, curators, librarians and educators.

In March 2022, Reber was part of a group of nearly 40 Wexner Center employees that asked Ohio State University to voluntarily recognize Wex Workers United, formed with AFSCME Ohio Council 8. The group also filed for an election with the State Employee Relations Board and received a majority of employees’ support. Group leaders say that they are waiting for OSU to agree to an election date as soon as possible.

“People talk about the great benefits that the Ohio State University and the Wexner Center have. But those could be taken away at any time, and they get changed pretty frequently. Our health insurance is always bouncing around to different providers; one day our pensions may be in peril,” Reber says.

Meanwhile, in May 2022, tenured and tenure-track professors at OSU’s Marion campus announced an effort to organize a union, citing wage disparity and decreasing health care and pension benefits as top grievances. If successful, the professors will be the first faculty employee union at OSU. As of press time, Ohio State has yet to formally respond to any of the workers’ requests.

“We are grateful for our colleagues at the Wexner Center for the Arts,” said the center’s co-interim executive directors Kelly Stevelt and Megan Cavanaugh in a statement. “Wex staff members bring our mission to life and make exceptional contributions to our work; Wex leadership values our team and is committed to engaging with all our colleagues in accordance with State Employment Relations Board rules and regulations. Wex Workers United has filed a petition for representation election, and we support our employees’ right to vote on whether they wish to be represented by a union or not.”

Working at the Wexner Center has been stressful since the filing, but even so, Reber says the close-knit employees don’t want to quit their jobs. “To be honest, I like the store that I run,” he says. “It’s one-of-a-kind in the Midwest. Because of this whole organizing process that we’ve all gone through, I have stronger bonds with people that I work with. We are a family—just not in the way that OSU wants us to be a family.”

What's Next on the Horizon

So what’s next for Central Ohio’s new labor activists? For many, it’s perhaps the most challenging part of the process—securing that first collective bargaining agreement. Worthington Libraries leaders are negotiating with the new union. Interim director Monica Baughman says the organization “looks forward” to inking a deal. “The library’s unionized staff has the same primary goal as library leadership: to provide our community with excellent library service,” she says. “In order for that to be possible, all staff need to have a voice in the organization and to feel valued and supported in their work.”

Union activists say these initial deals are rarely smooth affairs, typically meeting resistance from management and presenting a steep learning curve for workers, who are new to negotiating. “The first contract can take years in some cases,” says James, of the Transport Workers Union. “It’s part of a stall tactic to continue to discourage workers. Employers may not mind you having input, but they don’t want you to have the final say.”

In December 2021, a Starbucks in Buffalo, New York, became the first in the country to form a union. The company has agreed to negotiate with the nascent group, but so far no deal has been achieved. Baldwin, the barista at the Downtown Columbus store, expects a similar battle in Central Ohio. “It’s really hard to start a functioning union in this country,” he says. “This is a marathon for us.” 

How to Start a Union

1.    Employees launch an organizing committee to collect information about workers and educate them about the union process.

2.    The organizing committee then works to gain support and outline issues with employees. Most employees complete this step outside of work hours.

3.    Employees can become an authorized union in one of two ways:

  • 30 percent of workers sign cards or a petition stating they want a union, and the State Employment Relations Board or the National Labor Relations Board holds an election. If a majority vote wins, the board certifies the union and collective bargaining begins.
  • An employer can also voluntarily recognize a union when a majority of workers state they are seeking a union. Once the union is formally recognized, the employer must bargain employment terms with union representatives.

Source: AFL-CIO

This story is from the July 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.