America is undergoing a revival of organized labor. Workers at iconic twenty-first-century corporations like Apple, Google, and Amazon are increasingly voting to unionize, bucking plummeting private-sector union membership rates (from over 20% at the dawn of Reaganism to less than half of that today). No business has felt the changing tides more than Starbucks: over 200 locations have joined Starbucks Workers United (SWU) since barista and activist Jaz Brisack organized her Buffalo, New York store in December 2021.


The wave of successful elections represents a major victory for thousands of unionized workers who will now have a chance to bargain for improved pay, health and safety conditions, and rights on the job. But in the United States, that process is an arduous one. According to one study, fewer than half of workers who form unions secure collective bargaining agreements within one year of unionizing, and 30% are still without a contract after three years. In almost every case, before sitting down to bargain, employers attempt to intimidate and deter workers through a variety of means including captive-audience meetings, interrogations, threats, and illegal—but seldom penalized—terminations. 


Still roughly 98% of Starbucks branches remain non-union, meaning power remains squarely in the hands of the corporation. In addition to filing appeals that make it more difficult for new shops to go union, the company has limited recent wage and benefit increases to non-union workers, claiming that it is illegal to honor SWU’s demands without an official contract. Starbucks has yet to agree to a single bargaining agreement. Instead, the coffee giant has closed a number of recently unionized locations.


Against this backdrop of remarkable but nonetheless slow-developing progress, some workers are trying a more sweeping approach—one that involves organizing workers based not on their place of work but on the kind of work they do. Its name? Sectoral bargaining.


Across the Board

In January, Alejandro Garcia was working the night shift alongside his 19-year-old son at a Los Angeles Taco Bell when a would-be customer attempted to pay with a counterfeit bill. When he was refused service, the man fired several shots through the drive-thru window, one of which pierced the 41-year-old Garcia’s heart. He died before his son could reach him.


“This [Taco Bell] is a place where the workers have been complaining about the safety, saying it’s not safe in this neighborhood to be open 24 hours,” said Michelle Healy, Deputy Organizing Director for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Healy, who directs SEIU’s campaign to organize California fast-food workers, told the Nass that Garcia believed the window’s glass was bulletproof.


According to Healy, Garcia’s death reveals a disregard for workers’ well-being endemic in the fast-food industry. “This story tells me everything about how hard these workers work and how inhumane these employers are,” she said. “85% of fast-food workers experience wage theft. We have tons of complaints filed. It’s to the point where enforcement is not enough. These employers are willingly breaking the law. It’s not isolated. It’s across the board.”


Workers’ shared distress in California led them to push for a systemic solution. In September, the state passed the FAST Recovery Act, also known as AB 257. This landmark law, hailed by one observer as “one of the most significant pieces of employment legislation in a generation,” establishes a so-called “Fast Food Council.” The 10-person council, appointed by the governor and legislature, is empowered “to establish sectorwide minimum standards on wages, working hours, and other working conditions related to the health, safety, and welfare of, and supplying the necessary cost of proper living to, fast food restaurant workers.” The council is tripartite, consisting of government, industry, and labor representatives, including two fast-food employees. In short, AB 257 quite literally gives workers a seat at the table, allowing them to regulate pay, benefits, and working conditions on behalf of the state’s fast-food-sector workforce, numbering more than half a million, as opposed to on a restaurant-by-restaurant basis. The council’s standards will be renewed every 3 years and apply uniformly to all chains with at least 100 locations nationwide.


Healy explained that efforts to organize California’s fast-food workers en masse have been ongoing for over a decade but gained traction during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Our focus became all about the workers’ survival,” she said. “As essential workers, their jobs stayed open. We saw the most insane and inhumane treatment.”


At one Oakland McDonald’s, workers were given dog diapers in lieu of masks. At a Jack in the Box in Sacramento, in the middle of the summer, employees were denied air conditioning to save costs. When Maria Hernández complained to management, she was told that the problem was not the heat, but that the workers were going through menopause. Two-thirds of California’s fast-food workers are women. The workforce is also 80% nonwhite.


The incident in Sacramento triggered a strike, one of over 400 that have taken place at restaurants throughout the state since April 2020. “These are many undocumented workers walking off the job, young workers, old workers, the whole gamut of people,” said Healy. “That basically shifted the debate in the state [toward sector-wide standards] because it was kind of undeniable that these workers aren’t kidding around. They’re not just saying that they should get a little raise here and there. Their lives are on the line.”


Why Sectoral?

California’s sectoral framework departs from the enterprise-based approach unfolding at Starbucks and other companies across the country. While Starbucks falls under the provisions of AB 257, its business model distinguishes it from most classic fast-food chains. Whereas Starbucks manages all its branches directly, corporations like Taco Bell, McDonald’s, and Jack in the Box are franchised. This means that each restaurant is owned by a “franchisee” who oversees hiring and daily operations and must pay a quota to the franchisor, or parent company. From a consumer perspective, the “fissured” nature of this arrangement, whereby the parent company is an extra step removed from its employees, is inconsequential. Because McDonald’s stipulates menus, recipes, and pricing for all its franchisees, the Big Mac is the same in Oakland and Tulsa. But on the operational side, franchising shifts risk away from the franchisor and toward the individual restaurant. When a Jack in the Box lacks air conditioning, the corporation blames the franchisee.


“The parent companies turn a blind eye and act like it isn’t their problem when franchisees break the law,” Healy said. “Really, the franchisees are small businesspeople. They’re feeling the squeeze. They should do the right thing, but until we can address the tension with the parent companies, they’re left also just doing what they can to survive.” 


Healy claims that the franchisor-franchisee dynamic undermines the effectiveness of an organizing approach predicated on distinct union elections. If enough Starbucks locations organize, the parent company, which is directly responsible for wages and benefits, might capitulate and raise standards at all its locations. But with franchised chains, the franchisor maintains plausible deniability. “If you want to solve the problems in fast food, and it’s a major crisis in our eyes,” she concluded, “you really need a solution that works whether you’re franchised or not.”


Nothing New

AB 257 is not sectoral bargaining in the strictest sense. The Fast Food Council does not negotiate contracts between employers and employees but rather sets standards that touch on many of the issues a contract would. Similar workarounds are at play across the country, for example in New York’s agricultural sector, Michigan’s nursing home industry, and Nevada’s home care industry. In each case, workers, employers, and government representatives convene to promulgate standards or issue policy recommendations. 


Tripartite boards like these are necessary because U.S. labor law provides little support for multi-employer collective bargaining in the private sector. While the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (NLRA) requires that employers work out a contract with their employees at a given workplace if they vote to unionize, it does not require employers to bargain across more than one location, and certainly not with employees of other companies. More than that, the NLRA prevents state and local governments from passing their own laws concerning private-sector bargaining. While “preemption,” as this prohibition is called, was progressive for its time given opposition to labor reform in the conservative South, today it impedes states like California from mandating contract negotiation on an industry-wide basis.


For examples of true, large-scale sectoral bargaining in the twenty-first century, one must look overseas. In France, the Netherlands, and Italy, a union negotiates a contract with an employer, then the government “extends” the terms of that contract as minimum standards for all other workers in that sector. In April, Amazon workers in Staten Island, New York, led by Chris Smalls, made history when they voted to unionize. They have yet to bargain a contract. By way of comparison, a year earlier, Amazon signed a contract in accordance with Italy’s sectoral standards that provided minimum pay and benefits for every one of its employees in the country and paved the way for future, more generous firmwide agreements.


Critics of sectoral bargaining cite low unionization rates in countries adhering to the extension model: in France, whose rates are extremely low for Europe, a slightly smaller share of the workforce belongs to a union than in the U.S. David Madland, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and author of Re-Union: How Bold Labor Reforms Can Repair, Revitalize, and Reunite the United States, points to Sweden, Denmark, and Belgium as examples of countries that circumvent that problem. There, a system known as “Ghent” tasks unions with distributing welfare, which incentivizes enrollment. 


But Madland also argues that when used in isolation, unionization rates are a poor metric for evaluating worker well-being. “The ultimate goal is to achieve higher standards and greater protections for workers, and a key way to do that is through sectoral bargaining,” he said. Healy echoed this sentiment, explaining that even if the Fast Food Council does not produce a contract, the workers participating in it and represented by it “are a union by every definition of it except maybe that of the [National Labor Relations Board] because they collectively act to improve their lives.”


Economies with extension still rank among the highest in the world in terms of collective bargaining agreement coverage rates. In fact, by one count, every country with a coverage rate of at least 50%, with the lone exception of Malta, has some form of industry-wide or nationalized bargaining. According to Madland, when more people are covered by an agreement, marginalized workers benefit most: “You’re able to close racial and gender pay gaps as you’re covering more workers, and you’re especially covering the most vulnerable kinds of workers, who tend to be people in heavily fissured industries or women and people of color.”


While Europe may be the last refuge of large-scale sectoral organizing today, that wasn’t always the case. During the height of American industrialism, sectoral bargaining was far from a foreign concept in the U.S. The classic example is the auto industry, which at midcentury boasted nearly 100% unionization rates. There, workers negotiated a contract with one of the three major auto manufacturers—Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler—and then used the leverage afforded to them by their high union density to force the remaining two companies to replicate the terms. This strategy of “pattern bargaining” created de facto sectoral standards. Similar dynamics unfolded in the steel, coal, trucking, and even telecommunications industries: Madland estimates that by 1980, half of all collective bargaining in the country was multi-employer in nature.


“It’s not like we’re importing a Danish model,” Madland said. “There are certainly lessons to learn from these other countries, but I think our history is what we’re most likely to build from.”


Sectoral at Work

As union power faded in the latter decades of the twentieth century, industry-wide bargaining followed suit. But it has persisted in select industries. Steve Kelley, a janitor in downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, serves on the bargaining committee of his union, SEIU local 32BJ. When he sat down to negotiate a new contract in 2019, he found himself across the table from more employers than just his. “The first thing that struck me is that all these guys were in one room, sitting there in their suits and everything,” he recalled. “I’m like, you’ve got to be kidding me.”


But Kelley wasn’t alone: he was joined by fellow janitorial workers from across the city. “I felt like I truly understood what the labor movement was about,” Kelley said. “Outside of the birth of my children, this is the best thing that I’ve ever been a part of.”


95% of commercial building janitors in Pittsburgh are unionized and represented by a single collective bargaining agreement, according to Sam Williamson, Western Pennsylvania District Leader of 32BJ. Williamson estimates that standards for workers under this agreement are as much as three times better than those for non-union workers. They include a wage floor of over $19 per hour for commercial office cleaners, guaranteed full-time employment, and healthcare and pension benefits. “These are not things that we’re asking them for, these are things that we’re telling them they’re going to do,” Kelley said. “That’s power.”


Even though no law requires janitorial employers to bargain sectorally, Williamson says that anything else would be a non-starter for the union. Like in the fast-food industry, janitorial services are fissured: beginning in the 1980s, many building owners stopped employing their cleaners directly, instead using intermediary contractors. In response, the nascent Justice for Janitors movement—which originated at Mellon Bank in Pittsburgh—prioritized multi-employer contracts. Williamson explained that the sectoral approach is necessary to prevent contractors from undercutting each other when bidding for worksites. Today, janitors in Pittsburgh benefit from that legacy. And, like their erstwhile counterparts in the auto industry, they leverage their high union density to maintain multi-employer agreements. 32BJ janitors across the Northeast structure their contracts to expire simultaneously and go on “sympathy strikes” whenever workers in one city walk off the job, creating what Williamson refers to as a “super-regional basis” for sectoral bargaining.


32BJ, which represents building services workers of all stripes, is now expanding its sectoral strategy beyond janitors. In 2015, it unionized 750 security officers—the first ever in Pittsburgh. They were employed by multiple contractors and all bargained under the same agreement. “Employers are extremely resistant to doing [industry-wide contracts] the first time around,” said Williamson. “We made it very clear to all the employers that we had just beaten in the organizing process that we weren’t for a minute going to entertain individual contracts for individual employers.” The second and most recent contract covers twice as many workers and guarantees a minimum wage of $14.20 per hour as well as employer-funded health insurance for full-time employees. Before 2015, the majority of security officers in the city earned less than $10 per hour and only 15% had healthcare.


Josh Kunkle, a security officer in Pittsburgh whose building retains fewer than 25 security workers, recalls bargaining alongside “people that are younger, people that are older, people with different ethnic backgrounds, people from all over the city.” “It gives me this sensation that this is bigger than me,” he said. “We’re fighting for the people who really need this stuff. We’re fighting for everyone.”


Kunkle makes $19.05 per hour but feels that the potentially dangerous nature of his work warrants more. The current contract expires at the end of this month, and he’s pushing for a 401(k) in the next one. “Our demands aren’t astronomical, just things we need to live and survive in this world,” he said. Kunkle nonetheless anticipates pushback from management.


Whether in California or Pittsburgh, workers attempting to organize across their sector have met with fierce resistance from their bosses. But advocates for multi-employer bargaining maintain that it could benefit both sides. According to Madland, industry-wide standards take wages out of competition, meaning no company is at a disadvantage relative to another. Instead of a race to the bottom, businesses compete based on productivity, which bolsters the overall economy. And generally, says Madland, higher wages and union representation boost productivity, “especially in sectoral systems.”


Sectoral bargaining promises to improve workers’ day-to-day experiences at individual workplaces, too. “The relationship between workers and employers tends to be better because wage discussions and debates are at a different level, so workers and their managers are focused on ensuring that their services are as successful as possible,” said Madland. In California, Healy predicts that elevated standards for fast-food workers will mean less turnover and wage theft litigation.


Moving Forward

Despite the current energy around sectoral organizing, enterprise bargaining—the approach taken by SWU and most U.S. unions over the last century—does not appear likely to vanish anytime soon. Nor should it, argues Madland. “There are also going to be worksite issues that should be collectively bargained,” he said. But he maintains that on a broad sale, sectoral bargaining is the only path to rebuilding the American middle class. “The research is really clear around the world that collective bargaining coverage is high and stable only in places that have sectoral bargaining systems.” With the rise of the gig economy, driven by companies such as Uber and DoorDash, the notion of a “worksite” becomes increasingly ambiguous, and an organizing approach that covers workers based on the nature rather than the location of their work becomes more appealing. 


Such a system seems unlikely to materialize in the U.S. without federal legislative action, despite breakthroughs like the Fast Food Council and voluntary sectoral agreements in select industries like building services. Ultimately, what may be needed for widespread sectoral bargaining is an amendment to the NLRA. “You really need the government’s hand on the scale to equalize [workers and employers],” Madland said. “It’s never going to truly happen in a capitalist economy. Employers are going to almost always have the upper hand. But we can get relative parity.”


For working people, relative parity could mean family-sustaining wages, essential benefits, and basic respect on the job.


Header artwork by Hannah Mittleman.