Episode 10: Union Unity

0:00 / 31:53
August 11, 2020

Veteran barista Hiwot Fekadu speaks about her personal experience at Starbucks—one of the locations highlighted by a national union survey that found Black baristas were routinely paid less than their white counterparts at certain locations of the coffee chain. Then, Gayle Hamilton, Interim Director of Labor@Wayne (located at Wayne State University in Detroit), recounts the role of labor unions, often led by Black women, in improving the lives of women and other disenfranchised groups in the American workforce.

Due to the pandemic, this interview was recorded by Zoom and/or phone. A transcript is available below. In The Gap was created with the support of the Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting and In These Times magazine. Contact the show at podcast@inthesetimes.com.



CHANDRA THOMAS WHITFIELD (HOST): Welcome to In The Gap, a podcast about how and why Black women aren’t getting their green. I’m your host, journalist Chandra Thomas Whitfield. Today, we look at the role that labor unions play in protecting Black women from pay discrimination.

FEKADU: They gave me evaluation every year, but I asked them why this all this happened. And they told me I’m a good employee, I’m working right, like on time, all the time, everything they told me, “you’re good employee,” but the way how they give me is 30 cents raise every year.

WHITFIELD: 30 cent raise.

FEKADU: Yeah, 30 cents. That’s all they give me every year.

WHITFIELD: That’s our first guest today, Hiwot Fekadu, a barista at the Starbucks location at Denver International Airport. That’s her reacting to a national survey by the union UNITE HERE. Now this survey found that Black baristas like Hiwot, who work at Starbucks locations inside some of the nation’s airports are routinely getting paid less than their white counterparts.


WHITFIELD: In fact, on average $1.85 less an hour. Hiwot and other co workers are trying to unionize to address the issue. We’re going to hear her story first, but later, we’ll talk to Gayle Hamilton. She’s a labor expert from Wayne State University and she’s gonna pick up our discussion, sharing some fascinating information about the impact and role that labor unions have played and continue to play in improving work conditions and pay for all workers, especially Black women.

HAMILTON: It’s important just to note that labor rights, civil rights and women’s rights, all three of those movements are instrumental and they work together to really move Black women forward.

WHITFIELD: Now back to Hiwot.

Thanks for joining us.

FEKADU: Thank you for having me.

WHITFIELD: These locations are actually operated by a company called HMS Host, which is a food service company, and they operate at 27 US airports and employ 23,000 workers at airports. Not all Starbucks, but they all are part of the food service industry at the nation’s airports, and they have dismissed these claims stating that pay rates are not in any way determined by race and ethnicity. And they claim that they are based on experience and time with the company. But you have been at this Starbucks since 2007.


FEKADU: Yes, since 2007.


FEKADU: 13 years.

WHITFIELD: 13 years? I can’t help but notice, okay, if it’s about how long you’ve been with the company, seems like you’ve been at the company for quite a while, and you actually worked at another location prior to working at Denver International Airport. You were working in Minneapolis, right?


WHITFIELD: What did you do out there?

FEKADU: I work for HMS Host for the merchandise, like gift shops.

WHITFIELD: And so then from there, you transferred to Denver?

FEKADU: Yes. My manager asked me to transfer to Starbucks. So I transferred.

WHITFIELD: And that was your first time actually working at a Starbucks under the company, right?


WHITFIELD: So how did that go as far as pay? Were you making the same rate that you had been making in Minneapolis?


FEKADU: They have the difference between them and I got the same actually from Minneapolis. the same when I started. So I start and the manager told me, “I’ll give you the position and just wait until I get opening.”

WHITFIELD: Now which position did you want?

FEKADU: I was a lead shift that time

WHITFIELD: Lead shift?


WHITFIELD: And so that basically means more responsibility leading others and that type of thing?


WHITFIELD: So you were told, “Oh, just come on out and once you get here, we’ll figure all that out.”



WHITFIELD: And so what happened when you got here?

FEKADU: Then I was training in a Starbucks as a barista, I start working as a barista. So I keep asking them, they don’t respond.

WHITFIELD: And you were asking for a pay

FEKADU: Yeah, more pay. Yeah, to get the position and to get more pay. So for certain years, it is almost the same. I got higher paid like new employees right now. Like they pay $14 for new hiring. And they pay me $15.72 now.

WHITFIELD: And this is since 2007.

FEKADU: Yeah, since 2007.

WHITFIELD: I’m just trying to picture that many years. What’s the explanation for why you can’t get this pay raise that you want?


FEKADU: They gave me evaluation every year, but I asked them why this all this happened. And they told me I’m a good employee, I’m working right, like on time, all the time, everything they told me, “you’re good employee,” but the way how they give me is 30 cents raise every year.

WHITFIELD: 30 cent raise.

FEKADU: Yeah. That’s all they give me every year. So that’s why I’m not moving much. And also when they get hiring new employees from 13 to 14, I was asking them to give me a raise. They say people are staying longer, they don’t get any raise.

WHITFIELD: So you’re saying right now. Theoretically, someone can walk into Starbucks and be hired at $14 an hour?


WHITFIELD: And you have been at the company since 2007 and you make $15.75.


WHITFIELD: 72. Okay.

FEKADU: Even I heard that right now they hiring, like $15.90 will be the new hiring.

WHITFIELD: You work full time or part time?

FEKADU: Full time.

WHITFIELD: You work full time with the company. How does that make you feel? I mean, you show up every day according to your reviews you’re on time, and the answer’s just, “No, no, no.”

FEKADU: So, you know, I feel like it is stressful job, by the way, you know, I like the job but it’s stressful because I work and I didn’t get paid enough like how I work. They hire new employees and they bring new managers from outside, some of them like new training.

WHITFIELD: From what I also understand, you also have another job.


WHITFIELD: And do you feel that that’s necessary because you’re not being compensated enough?


FEKADU: I have to pay my bills so that’s why I need to figure out to get another job.

WHITFIELD: What would you consider a fair pay rate for your years of experience and the quality of employee that you currently are?

FEKADU: It’s unfair. It would be like when they give a raise to the new hiring, I can get the same one, you know, like, if they get up like $1, I supposed to get a $1 like the other employees, because for 13 years, I have the same pay. And also they will when they give me the review, the review was good. They said that, at least like $1, or even more than 50 cents.

WHITFIELD: You were a part of this survey that was conducted of just over 300 or so employees at these Starbucks locations, right?

FEKADU: Mm hmm.


WHITFIELD: So when you heard the results, what are your thoughts?

FEKADU: It makes me frustrated because I’ve been here for a long time and I didn’t know how much we have a difference with other people’s.

WHITFIELD: Now, when you were in Minneapolis, you were a member of a union. How would you compare that experience? Like, what were some of the benefits you believe, of union membership at that time? Because it’s the same company, it’s just this one, this location was unionized in the one you’re at now isn’t. So what was the difference?

FEKADU: That has a big difference. You got respectful as your seniority.

WHITFIELD: So you got respected for your seniority?

FEKADU: Yeah. Also, you asked them, you’re right. And they give it to you, like your raise everything your review. So when I compare without the union it’s big difference.

WHITFIELD: Well, I mean, your experience seems, you know, pretty much backed up by research that says unionization makes a difference. In fact, I’ve read articles saying that unions were instrumental in creating a Black middle class because those individuals had representation so they were able to get more money and obviously move up in income and that affected the quality of their lives overall.

And in fact, I read that hourly wages for women represented by unions are 23% higher than for non-unionized workers. And they say this is across the board. It sort of seems like it makes things more uniform. And of course, you have collective bargaining. So everyone sort of benefits from this negotiation.

FEKADU: Yes, that’s what I expect. And also from my experience from Minnesota, that’s what I got. You got more respect, you have a right to ask for your right and you’ll keep your seniority even when they give overtime, they give to the new hiring peoples, most of the time, even when I was in Minnesota, they asked you first and they go by seniority. So you have a right not to pick the overtime. So this all you miss without a union.


WHITFIELD: So what’s going on with you now? The union is trying to organize you workers and you all are trying to establish a union the DIA?


WHITFIELD: And what has that process been for you? What does that include?

FEKADU: It makes me strong to be in the union and to organize a union.

WHITFIELD: What have you been told, is there a process that you’re in right now to get you all organized? Are you all holding meetings? What’s kind of going on with the Denver workers?

FEKADU: Yeah, they hold us in a meeting. They say the union is not good for the employees.

WHITFIELD: What is it that you hope that will come out of you being in a union again?

FEKADU: My hope is first to get respect and to get right equality for all employees. Like what a color or race, everything. And second also, we tried to get more benefit, like medical benefit.

WHITFIELD: What is the status of that? Do you have medical benefits?

FEKADU: I do, but still I pay a lot of money.


WHITFIELD: So you have it, but then you have to pay a lot monthly to have it. And so you want that to be more affordable.

FEKADU. Yeah, I want to be more affordable because last year, I paid $109 for medical benefits. And I pay for my checkup, more than $1000, almost close to $2,000 over my bill.

WHITFIELD: Wow. In closing, what do you want to say about the gender pay gap, which is that women, particularly Black women are getting paid less money, presumably because they are Black women?

FEKADU: That’s not fair. That’s what we need to be together to see how we get paid everybody, equal.

WHITFIELD: Well, thank you so much, Hiwot, for joining us today on In The Gap and just applaud you for you know, speaking up and sharing your story. So many people don’t have the opportunity to do that, and sounds like for years, you have not had a voice and this hopefully is an opportunity to share your story with others.

FEKADU: Thank you.



WHITFIELD: Labor unions have long been celebrated as the great equalizers, a driving force behind leveling the playing field, so to speak, in terms of pay, benefits and helping to create a safer, more equitable work environment for all workers. But what role have they played in the fight for equity for Black workers, particularly Black women in the workforce?

Now we are joined by Gayle Hamilton, the interim director of labor at Wayne State University in Detroit. She is here to share her insights into this most important component of the gender pay gap issue. Welcome, Gayle.

HAMILTON: Thank you for having me. So there’s this issue of the gender pay gap in Black women, and then there’s this rich history of labor unions. So what kind of comes to mind when you think about these two entities together?


HAMILTON: Labor organizations have traditionally been there to equalize both pay, benefits, and then also to provide some voice to workers in the workplace, and Black women are not excluded from that. Now, what we’ve seen though, I think, is that really over the last few decades, with unions decline is resulted in a rising inequality and some diminished rights in workplaces across the US. And Black women of course, are faced by that, as well as additional stereotypes, and societal expectations of where women and especially Black women’s place should be in the work environment.

WHITFIELD: So when you look at it from a historical standpoint, what role have Black women played in union organizing, historically?

HAMILTON: Women, especially Black women, have been a part of organizing together for many, many years. Even though there were times post the civil rights movement, women, especially Black women, were excluded from labor organizations generally. They found ways to organize amongst themselves.

A lot of times Blacks would be the strikebreakers in many of these workplaces, because they were generally working in farming or agricultural or sharecropping, and things like that, when they had an opportunity to move into an industrial setting and move north, they tended to be those that were called upon to break strikes, union strikes, that were called. So UAW was well before their time and they made sure that they joined hands with the Black workers, and therefore they were able to combine here in Detroit and push the UAW forward. Because during their organizing drive, so Black workers and white workers combined to form the UAW.


WHITFIELD: In my research, I was intrigued to learn about how much labor unions are credited with playing a huge role in helping to bring many Black Americans into the middle class. How would you say that unionization of certain sectors, especially in the public sector, has helped close the gap for Black women employees overall?

HAMILTON: That’s a really good question. So union density at one point, say during the 80s, was probably closer to about 30% of the workforce.


HAMILTON: Not like that high, but almost. So current day, we’re looking at about 11% of the workforce is unionized. And as you mentioned, the public sector has a very large portion, so over 30% of the public sector is unionized. And today, only about 6% of the private sector is unionized. Today’s unions have really just spearheaded all of the benefits that we have currently, like minimum wage laws, 40 hour work weeks, overtime, health and safety in the workplace.

They also have had an opportunity to, today they’re focusing even on many issues that women are focused on. For example, raising the minimum wage, those happened to be women’s priorities, access to more affordable childcare paid sick leave, equal pay for equal work. Those are all women’s priorities today and unions are at the forefront of pushing those priorities forward.


WHITFIELD: So here’s some other information. A study by the Economic Policy Institute found that unions help raise the wages of women and Black and Hispanic workers whose wages have historically lagged behind those of white men, and that Black and Hispanic workers get a larger boost from unionization than their white counterparts. And the institute also found a study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research showed that Black union workers are 13.1 percentage points more likely to have employer provided health insurance and 15.4 percentage points more likely to have employer sponsored retirement plans. So it seems like you know, you really can see some very noticeable and well documented differences in the presence of a union in the workplace.

HAMILTON: Definitely. I mean, if you compare Black women to Black women who are working, 60% of them in unions have pension plans, compared to women, you know, who are non-union only 30% or so or have pensions. I mean, there is a significant advantage to being in a union.


Now, there are some difficulties that exist today because there’s an expansion of these contractors, or contingent workforces or temporary workers, whatever the name is, but all of those categories either tend to be prohibited or limited in their ability to join a union. And I say that because a lot of those jobs are people of color, especially, you know, Black women.

WHITFIELD: How would you say union contracts impact how pay scales are set in the workplace?

HAMILTON: Union contracts, first and foremost, they’re going to increase the transparency so there’s transparency that’s provided for different pay levels, for different job assignments, for various, you know, for how you’re promoted, it’s spelled out in the collective bargaining agreements. So therefore, it’s more difficult to discriminate based on gender or race, because everything is transparent and spelled out.


WHITFIELD: So you’re saying unions usually do provide pay transparency within a bargaining unit?

HAMILTON: Well within the collective bargaining agreement, the actual contract itself, the agreement, so union contract is a formal process that’s negotiated between the employer and the employees’ representatives, generally a union. And it sets terms and conditions of employment, for example, what the pay is, how you discipline, how you promote, all of that spelled out inside of a union contract. So therefore, union contracts provide that really broad transparency. So that just, you know, makes discriminating much more difficult.

WHITFIELD: What about the union grievance process? How do you feel it, you know, helps support employees, but specifically Black women, you know, does it give them support and more legal standing to advocate around unfair pay?


HAMILTON: Yeah, I mean, the grievance procedure is drafted also within a collective bargaining agreement. So when you say legal, although it’s a legal negotiated agreement between the two parties, much of the representation and negotiation occurs between those two parties. So they don’t traditionally go before any type of arbitrary, legal arbitrary, generally. So the grievance procedure addresses how workers should be treated and how they can basically grieve or confront any type of unfair treatment that they see in their workplaces. So it’s simpler than traditional litigation, it also is less costly than going through traditional litigation, but a grievance procedure gives workers a voice in their workplace.

WHITFIELD: What would you say are some of the exciting work that you’ve been witnessing lately, around the union work in empowering workers, particularly, you know, workers of color?

HAMILTON: it’s important to just note that, although unions may have traditionally back in the mid 20th century, maybe weren’t as inclusive with Black workers. Today they are, moving into the 60s, they were involved in the civil rights movement. And I think it’s important just to note that labor rights, civil rights and women’s rights, all three of those movements are instrumental and they work together to really move Black women forward. So it’s important to just know that and then today looking at that, so a lot of labor organizations have focused on fairer—I think it’s important just to note that the contracts that are negotiated are to provide not just wage, you know, increases or benefit increases, the purpose of a union contract is to provide also dignity at your job to provide a fair workplace to provide workers with a voice and to provide a much more humane workplace. We see that, you know, happening now where unions are stepping up fighting for the worker’s safety in the workplace, especially with this COVID disease that’s running rampant in certain workplaces. So it’s important just to note, the connection between those three movements. I think that’s important because labor unions are dedicated to civil rights and women’s rights today.

WHITFIELD: Wow. You know, I think that’s really the heart of this whole discussion is just acknowledging the fact that unions do seem to provide that voice, that power. You said it gives a voice to groups that are often voiceless, and really left defenseless in, you know, in the society, you know, that is so driven by profit over people in many cases.


HAMILTON: Oh, without a doubt, you know, we’ve seen productivity has increased significantly in wages have stagnated in the last four decades.

WHITFIELD: Now, you mentioned, of course, the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic, and you mentioned that it seems like workers rights are probably in the forefront right now, especially knowing that Black women, as you also mentioned, are disproportionately represented in low wage jobs and service jobs. So when you think about moving forward in a post-COVID world, what role do you see unions playing?

HAMILTON: That’s a good question, that’s a really good question. And I don’t know if I have the answer for that, because things are changing daily, but what we saw in the years running up to like in 2018, 2019, workers were having record strikes, I mean, strikes that they hadn’t seen since this, you know, 70s and 80s. And they tended to be in industries that, well, not all of them, but they tended to be in industries that are predominantly female, for example, school teachers. I think we have school teachers from across the country, you know, West Virginia, Arizona, California, Illinois.


WHITFIELD: Absolutely. I do remember that. That was huge.

HAMILTON: Public school teachers were striking across the country, also hotel workers—you mentioned UNITE HERE—hotel workers were also striking with Marriot. There was a big strike with Marriott Hotels. So, you know, and hotel workers tend to be female, you know, they tend to be the folks in housekeeping and the front desk and you know, those type of workers, and we know that school teachers tend to be predominantly a more female occupation as well. Labor disputes have happened since the beginning of time, but we never saw the record of labor disputes that we saw in 2018, 2019.


HAMILTON: Now I have to answer your question moving into post-COVID. I mean, there’s two choices, right? I mean, either workers are going to fight for equity and especially safe workplaces, I think that’s going to be a big, we’re going to be confronted with a lot of issues around safety at the job. And unions are going to push for in every workplace, but especially workplaces like the National Domestic Workers Alliance, a organization that represents nannies, housekeepers, and home health care workers. And so again, those tend to be the workers who, are domestic employees, tend to be excluded from the federal law that says that you can organize a union.

So what they’ve done, the Domestic Workers Alliance has, they’ve joined together these groups

They’ve also put forth a bill of rights that deals with, you know, worker rights protections in overtime pay, safe workplaces, sick time and harassment, freedom from harassment. So you asked what’s going to happen post COVID? Well, particularly those that take care of those that we care about the most, meaning our seniors, our children, those folks that are in our homes, taking care of our homes. Those folks that we are now calling essential workers are the lowest paid workers and have the least amount of rights under the law under federal law.



HAMILTON: So I would hope that there’s a recognition of their importance in our society, and that they are given fairer wages and much more benefits and a right to simply organize as well. So that’s my hope for those groups, but it’s for all workers.

WHITFIELD: So in closing, what do people, particularly Black women, in your view need to know about labor unions and this issue of closing the gender pay gap?

HAMILTON: Great question. Well, I think it’s important for us to know first that when people talk about the status quo, you know, like Black women maybe need to work harder or gain more skills or get more education or, or even, you know, the get off of welfare type thing. It really ignores the fact that Black women have always worked and always worked at a much higher ratio than other female groups, they also are highly likely, more likely, I should say, to pursue post-secondary type education.

So the problem that we have is not whether women, Black women, have a good work ethic, they do. And it’s not whether or not they have attained any type of educational achievement, they have. The problem is that Black women need to be appreciated in the roles that they’ve played traditionally and historically in society. So I’m optimistic that Black women will remain engaged in their labor unions, that they will continue to achieve and upskill themselves so that they can continue to lead in this fight for equity and equality in their workplaces. And I just want them to remember a Black woman’s place is in her union.


WHITFIELD: Hmm, what a great, great closing point. Thank you so much Gayle Hamilton from Wayne State University from Labor at Wayne State University. Thank you so much for sharing your insights with us today.

HAMILTON: Thank you.


WHITFIELD: Again, special thanks to Starbucks barista Hiwot Fekadu for sharing her story, and also Gayle Hamilton from the Labor Studies Center at Wayne State University.

That’s our show today, which was hosted and produced by me, journalist Chandra Thomas Whitfield and edited by House of Pod. The music is Convoy Lines by Blue Dot Sessions. In The Gap was created with the support of the Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting and In These Times magazine, which has been covering issues of equity and social justice since 1976. To learn more about In The Gap and the pay gap for Black women, go to www.inthesetimes.com/inthegap.