A Starbucks (SBUX) cafe in Buffalo, New York this week became the company's second store to unionize, as far-flung locations in Chicago, Ill., Cleveland, Oh., and Tallahassee, Fl. filed for union elections that could spread the trend nationwide.
Just Friday, a labor official ruled that employees at three more New York state Starbucks locations will vote on unionization, Bloomberg reported. The sudden boon for the labor movement may have caught some observers by surprise, after decades of decline in union representation nationwide and recent organizing struggles in the high-turnover fast food industry.
One person who wasn't surprised by the news of a Starbucks unionization: U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, who spoke to Yahoo Finance after the news of the vote at the Buffalo Starbucks.
Walsh, the former Democratic mayor of Boston and ex-head of a union called the Boston Building Trades Council, pointed to survey results that show an overwhelming majority of young people hold a favorable view of unions. Moreover, he highlighted the value of unions as a means to earn a middle class livelihood amid limited opportunity for well-paying jobs.
When asked by Yahoo Finance Editor-in-Chief Andy Serwer if he was surprised by the union success at Starbucks, Walsh said, "Not really."
Walsh said the immensely high favorability for unions among millennials, however, has caught him by surprise.
A Gallup survey released in September found that 77% of young adults between the ages of 18 and 34 approve of unions. Overall, the poll found 68% of people approve of unions, the highest rate found by the survey since 1965.
"And when I say surprise, I'm happy to see that," Walsh says. "I grew up in a labor family, and as a kid, you know, not everyone had the same feeling as my family, my father and myself, my uncle, my brother, and cousins who felt that way."
"So it's good to see that there is definitely an interest in unionization," he says.
Walsh, whose parents immigrated from Ireland in the 1950s, says he learned the importance of unions from his father, a laborer and union member. He credits unions for allowing his father to live out his latter years with a pension, and pass that pension along to his mother.
"Unions bring opportunities for people in this country that otherwise wouldn't have the power of collective bargaining and the power of fighting for raising their wages, the power of pensions," Walsh says.
Despite the popularity of labor organizations in surveys, unions represent barely 10% of workers — and a paltry 6.3% of private sector workers. The food and beverage industry has one of the lowest rates of union representation of any sector at 1.2%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Speaking to Yahoo Finance, Walsh said unionization offers a means to address wealth inequality, though he acknowledged that he represents union and non-union workers alike.
"So I think that there's opportunities here for us to rebuild the middle class by that and certainly I support collective bargaining, and I support unionization," he says.
"But I also support it being done the right way. So if people want to organize, they should be able to organize. And if people choose not to organize, they have that right as well," he says.