We’re in a resurgent period of union activity in the U.S. From high-profile labor wins at Amazon and certain Starbucks locations down to regional wins at Voodoo Doughnuts in Oregon or Colectivo Coffee in Wisconsin, economic sectors that have traditionally eschewed union enrollment—food and beverage union rates stand at about 3.4 percent compared to the overall rate of 10.8 percent —are beginning to organize.

And it makes sense why it would be happening now. Union activity has always coalesced as a collective response to corporate overreach. During the pandemic, where frontline workers were asked to put themselves in harm’s way, for longer hours, without seeing those sacrifices reflected in pay and benefits, it fostered an air of resentment.

Now, as key sectors such as restaurant and retail look to address staffing shortages, workers are in a position with strong leverage, and unsurprisingly they’re playing the hand they’re dealt by pursuing unionization.

What is also unsurprising is the corporate response to these efforts. Starbucks has faced backlash from U.S. labor officials for retaliatory measures taken toward union leaders, not to mention the millions of dollars Amazon and others have spent on anti-union campaigning. And, broadly speaking, American companies have a long history of challenging worker organization. In a country where corporate profits exist as the only mandate, stifling union activity is a tried-and-true method of preserving a company’s bottom line.

Corporations—particularly those in restaurants and retail that hire large quantities of hourly workers—need to realize that unionization is not a doomsday scenario. Unions are often seen as the only recourse for workers who have been undervalued. In an era where companies are desperate for workers and are already offering higher pay and better benefits to attract talent, unionization and the contract negotiation process can be a valuable way of fixing cracks in the employee relationship, attracting new talent, and fostering employee retention efforts.

What Unions Bring to the Table

When we talk about unions, we often speak in stereotypes that obscure the reality of what unions actually offer. Capitalism and the profit motive have drawn a line that states that unions foment an adversarial relationship between workers and management which leads to overpaid, unproductive labor.

Particularly in restaurants and retail, where workers are notoriously thought to be flighty and disloyal (which is to say they’d move jobs at the drop of a hat for better pay or benefits), the idea of giving those workers a seat at the bargaining table is often seen as a dangerous move for companies.

In actuality, the benefits of unionization are far-reaching, and improve not only individual worker’s quality of life, but have broader societal benefits.

An Economic Policy Institute study found that in states with higher union enrollment, key metrics surrounding economic well-being, health and wellness, and even civic engagement were higher.

While these metrics speak to better quality of life for workers, a happier, more engaged, and healthier workforce is better for companies too. Restaurant employee satisfaction surveys during the height of the Great Resignation showed workers desperate for higher pay, better flexibility in hours, better sanitation practices, and increased benefits. If unionization exists as a conduit to increased employee satisfaction, it can create the conditions to build a more loyal, committed workforce.

What Restaurants Can Do to Increase Employee Satisfaction

The pandemic labor crunch revealed long-festering fissures in the employee-employer relationship. Increased union activity is an outgrowth of that mounting dissatisfaction, and a clarion call to corporations to address worker concerns before they’re irreparably broken. In a way, the union negotiation process is a lot like marriage counseling for employers and employees, and can prove to be instructive and constructive for both sides.

In the end, what all of this contention boils down to is employees feeling valued; and value can take many forms. Obvious investments in employee salary and benefits are important, and are typically where these negotiations open. Restaurants are already responding to this market pressure even without union activity; in order to attract talent, restaurants throughout the country are offering higher starting pay, signing bonuses, and additional benefits packages.

These investments are a great starting point. But going further, employee retention means investing in an employee’s future. Upskilling restaurant workers and building the foundations for managerial tracks or leadership positions signal to employees that working in a restaurant is more than an hourly gig, but could actually be a career.

Additionally, implementing incentive programs that give employees skin in the game towards the company’s success can help increase employee engagement and foster a better corporate culture, with or without union involvement.

Moving Forward Together

Increased unionization in restaurants is the result of decades of employees feeling undervalued and neglected. While these conversations can be difficult, they’re conversations that need to be had to repair a frayed relationship. By committing, in good faith, to addressing the needs of workers, restaurants can see increased employee satisfaction and better retention, which improves their bottom lines and has ripple effects across society at large.

Andrew Duffy, CEO and Co-Founder of SparkPlug, the first employee incentive management platform for retailers and restaurants. Before founding SparkPlug, Duffy earned a BA in Behavioral Economics from Harvard University and worked for Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund, where he studied labor economics and implemented investment theses based on research into human behavior. 

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