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A year of reinvigorated labor battles

Workers fought back in 2022 and Tone Madison was there to cover it.
A collage of four images from different Tone Madison labor stories in 2022. Clockwise from top left.

1. Illustration: Three fists are raised in front of a knight’s shield. The center fist is holding a pair of dice. An explosion radiates from behind the fists and shield; exploding out are a halo of polyhedral dice. End image description.

2. Photo: A Starbucks worker is shown standing outside the chain's Capitol Square location, wearing a green apron and smiling toward the camera.

3. Illustration: Blurry, distorted Metro buses fanned out against a purple background. 

4. Photo: Worker Justice Wisconsin Program Director Robert Christl and Faith Outreach Coordinator Gretchen Baumgardt discuss upcoming dealings with faith communities in Christl’s cubicle which drips with the iconography of the local soccer club, Forward Madison FC. Christl is shown sitting in an office chair with one foot propped up on a desk, while Baumgardt stands in the foreground talking with him and gesturing.
Clockwise from top left: Illustration by M.Rose Sweetnam, from “Workers roll for solidarity at a Fitchburg game retailer“; A photo of downtown Starbucks worker Evan McKenzie, by JT Cestkowski, from “The slow drip of Madison’s coffee-shop unions“; Illustration by Scott Gordon, from “Why is the City of Madison trying to cut Metro workers out of their union?“; Photo from the officers of Worker Justice Wisconsin, by JT Cestkowsi, from “Worker Justice Wisconsin’s year of new tactics and deep thinking.”

Workers fought back in 2022 and Tone Madison was there to cover it.

You’ve heard it before but it bears repeating: 2022 was a boom for organized labor. And while headlines have been dominated by national chains, such as Starbucks and Amazon, in Madison we’ve seen a resurgence of organizing in workplaces big and small where workers are forming their own unions, agitating for better conditions, or going on strike. 

At Tone Madison, we’ve put quite a bit of time and shoe-leather into reporting on labor movements in our own backyard in 2022. This year our two labor reporters—long-time organizer Frank Emspak and one of our newest freelancers, JT Cestkowski—reported:

  • Why a supposedly liberal city such as Madison would restrict Metro Transit employees’ union membership. 
  • How, among Madison’s numerous coffee shops, organizing has been a mixed bag of triumphs and setbacks. 
  • How customer solidarity with workers may have pressured a Fitchburg gaming company into recognizing their union.
  • How Worker Justice Wisconsin, an organization focused on helping Latin American immigrant workers organize is helping people find and exercise their power even in the face of crushing odds. Including at Crushin’ It Apparel, where requests for tolerable workshop temperatures and clean bathrooms were met with layoffs and the owner selling off production equipment, but the employees are continuing to fight.
  • While many employees (including myself) are benefiting from the opportunities available with remote work, CUNA Mutual’s union is fighting the threat of remote contractors replacing its Madison-based unionized workforce. 

In hindsight, this resurgence in labor activity shouldn’t be surprising. Workers’ wages have been stagnant for decades, failing to keep up with productivity and the wages of their bosses. And while the pro-business narrative has been about “skills gaps” and automation, that hasn’t held up under scrutiny. Instead, there’s strong evidence that those trends are directly linked to the decline of organized labor.

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What should still be surprising is that a nation that claims to value hard work has such disdain for its hardest workers. Starbucks for years bragged about having two empty chairs in each board meeting, one representing its workers and customers. When baristas began organizing, essentially asking that they get to actually sit in that chair, the story stopped being cute and feel-good. Turns out Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz prefers an empty chair to a live flesh-and-blood human being with bills to pay and mouths to feed. 

While conservatives love to denigrate baristas (especially if they have dyed hair, tattoos, or piercings), I remember the words of a close friend who had worked her way up to management in a small business only for that business to close in the Great Recession. She got a job as a barista at Starbucks, and told me, “I’ve never worked so hard for so little money.”

Right-wingers also love to make it seem like organized labor is all about the money, but as we’ve seen in our coverage, that’s not true. When I first heard the This American Life episode “NUMMI,” which originally aired in 2010, it reshaped the way I thought about the role of unions in the workplace. It tells the story of how a failing car manufacturing plant was taken over by Toyota. Toyota implemented a work system that empowered workers to provide feedback on how to make the manufacturing process better. The result was happier workers and a better product. 

Workers, believe it or not, are not trying to sabotage their employers. In fact, some of the most embittered co-workers I’ve ever had were people who really knew how the sausage was made and had ideas on how to make the company more efficient and profitable, but nobody higher up wanted to hear it. Owners and managers have a perspective workers don’t have, but the inverse is also true. Giving workers a seat at the table benefits everyone.

Even today, with a supposedly pro-union President and resurging public support for organized labor, we are not listening to workers, to our own detriment. Tone Madison will continue to prioritize labor coverage that is centered on workers’ perspectives in 2023 (send us tips!). The last 40 years have shown us the consequences of ignoring laborers and we, for one, are not going to continue down that road.

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