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Gulf South’s ‘Hot Labor Summer’ is heating up heading into the fall

To show solidarity with Starbucks workers attempting to unionize, patrons order coffee under names like “Union Strong” on May 11, 2022, at a location in downtown Birmingham.
Stephan Bisaha/Gulf States Newsroom
To show solidarity with Starbucks workers attempting to unionize, patrons order coffee under names like “Union Strong” on May 11, 2022, at a location in downtown Birmingham.

After a cooler start, the “Hot Labor Summer” wave finally caught on in the Gulf South in August.

That month alone saw four strikes happen across Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi, according to Cornell University’s Labor Action Tracker. From May through July, only three strikes were counted.

The “Hot Labor Summer” nickname picked up steam this season as hundreds of strikes across the United States occurred — from Hollywood writers spending months on the picket line to single-day walkouts.

Most of the strikes in the region lasted for just one day. That includes firefighters in Jackson, Mississippi, a teacher sickout at St. Helena Parish School District in Louisiana and two strikes by Maximus call center workers. In Baton Rouge, an employee sickout to protest low wages lasted at least Friday through Monday in late August. Employees at the Washington Parish School System also went on strike last week.

The more than half dozen strikes reflect a heightened labor movement in the Gulf South — but it still pales in comparison to the action in the northeast and along the West Coast. David Zonderman, a labor historian and professor at North Carolina State University, said it stems from the South’s more than 100-year history of being hostile to organized labor.

Both in the Gulf South and across the country, the labor movement began heating up in 2021. At the end of that year, Starbucks workers in Buffalo became the first to unionize at the coffee giant, leading to hundreds more stores in the franchise doing the same. One of them was in Scottsboro, Alabama, which went on a day-long strike on August 27th.

But none of the stores that successfully unionized have been able to negotiate a first contract yet. According to labor experts, that can take years.

Caitlyn Pierce, a barista at the Maple Street New Orleans Starbucks that was the first in Louisiana to unionize in June 2022, accuses the company of delaying negotiations and said it’s impacting morale at the store.

A Starbucks spokesperson, however, blamed the union, Workers United, for the delays. Workers United has failed to agree to any bargaining sessions since the end of May, the spokesperson said, but the company has been able to negotiate with a store unionized by the Teamsters in Pennsylvania — though that store has not reached a first contract yet either.

Pierce said Starbucks officials proposed a meeting with the union members from her store in Houston rather than a location in New Orleans. She also said the company notified them about the proposal just two weeks before the meeting would take place.

Pierce called both conditions unreasonable.

“Sometimes it is extremely frustrating,” Pierce said. “It’s unbelievably aggravating to be treated that way by a company that I personally worked for for three years almost.”

Despite the stalled-out contract talks, another New Orleans Starbucks store voted to unionize with Workers United in May. But union elections in the Gulf South have otherwise been rare. Only three workplaces voted to unionize between May and July. Zonderman said that’s due in part to loopholes in the country’s labor laws.

“Most businesses are very aggressive about using those loopholes or in some cases overtly violating the laws to squelch union drives,” Zonderman said.

But while the Gulf South may have been slow to get in on Hot Labor Summer, the momentum built from a busy August could continue into a Spicy Labor Fall.

A regional director at the National Labor Relations Board accused Amazon of illegally tainting a union election at its Bessemer, Alabama warehouse in 2022. That election was already a rerun election after the NLRB found that Amazon violated labor laws in its campaign against an attempt to unionize the facility in 2021.

Based on the results of the hearing, a third election could be ordered at the warehouse. That hearing is set for September 25th.

This story was produced by the Gulf States Newsroom, a collaboration between Mississippi Public BroadcastingWBHM in Alabama, WWNO and WRKF in Louisiana and NPR

Stephan Bisaha is the wealth and poverty reporter for the Gulf States Newsroom, a regional collaboration between NPR and member stations in Alabama (WBHM), Mississippi (MPB) and Louisiana (WWNO and WRKF). He reports on the systemic drivers of poverty in the region and economic development.