Why the Starbucks Labor Campaign Matters to All Workers
The Starbucks Labor Campaign is the most exciting new organizing campaign in the United States.
Just two months after two Starbucks locations in Buffalo, New York, voted to become the first union-operated Starbucks in the nation, the unionization push shows no signs of abating: more than ninety stores in twenty-six states have filed for National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) union elections. So much the better, because there is still a long way to go for a coffee giant which, in the United States alone, operates nearly nine thousand stores employing some 230,000 people.
The hope, both for Starbucks workers and the broader labor movement, is that enough stores will organize that the union can win new standards for the company’s sprawling workforce. Given Starbucks’ role in the coffee industry, this would have implications for other workplaces, with the potential to raise standards across the industry. Serious sectoral bargaining, in which higher standards are set and enforced for an entire sector of the economy (for example, all fast food workers), relies on such an organization.
Achieving such an organization is not an easy task. Buffalo stores are just beginning contract negotiations, and their employer — like every boss in America — has myriad ways to drag out negotiations, stalling until workers lose steam and settle for more. a poor contract (or no contract at all). Starbucks workers will need to maintain the pressure they have generated: national as well as local headlines every time a new store is organized, strong community support. They will need the solidarity of the rest of organized labor, both material support and a physical presence in stores, rallies and picket lines.
All of this is worth stating that unionizing Starbucks is in the interest of the working class at large, of which low-wage service workers are an important fragment.
Despite frequent caricatures to the contrary by opponents of class politics, the working class is a diverse group and its demographic composition differs by sector. Hospitality workers bias Latina; construction workers tend to be white and male. The majority of food service workers are women, typically the youngest in the workforce. Since Starbucks locations cluster in metropolitan areas, its employees are mostly city dwellers. Disarticulated as some segments of the working class may be – a product of union decline, as well as the absence of strong civic ties and mass workers’ parties, which in other countries can bring disparate workers together in a political project common – these different segments are linked to each other, the activity of one affecting that of the other.
the New York Times reports that some of the effort’s early leaders are die-hard supporters of Bernie Sanders. As Maggie Carter, a Starbucks barista in Knoxville, Tennessee, who began organizing her store shortly after Buffalo’s union campaign, told the newspaper, “Bernie Sanders is everything to me.” Jaz Brisack, who works at one of Buffalo’s unionized stores, is a longtime admirer of Eugene Debs. Prior to her job as a barista, the 24-year-old Brisack was a Rhodes Scholar – the first woman in University of Mississippi history to win the award – and worked part-time on the (ultimately unsuccessful) campaign. ) to unionize a Nissan plant. in Canton, Mississippi.
That such individuals are part of the campaign’s origins is no surprise. Young, well-educated, debt-ridden students also make up a notable proportion of Democratic Socialist America (DSA) membership, and part of Sanders’ presidential campaign bet was that those energized by his message would embark on other projects to build – class power, the organization of work at the forefront of them.
Some might question the relevance of this class fraction: highly educated, downwardly mobile millennials. After all, aren’t there other workers with more economic clout, like logistics workers? Or those of more strategic importance – say, nurses and teachers – who perform essential social functions and are well placed to translate workplace struggles into broader political struggles?
The answer is: yes, but the labor movement is not a zero-sum game. Workers are organizing where they are, whether they are stevedores, port truckers, nurses, teachers, ironworkers, coal miners, oil refinery workers or baristas in Starbucks. A strong union contract at Starbucks in particular strengthens, rather than weakens, the working class in general and has the potential to help spark new organizing in the rest of the class.
The restaurant industry employs millions of people in the United States, and its meager wages set too low a floor for every worker, both in the industry and beyond. The industry model relies on an effectively infinitely renewable labor pool, which makes it particularly resistant to unionization: employers mix up workers before organization can be built. If Starbucks workers gain a foothold, they will not only have a structure from which to make those jobs better paying and more sustainable, but they will inspire others in the industry to do the same. (Indeed, others are already following in their footsteps.) Moreover, organizing in such a prestigious company will only fuel public support for unions and further entrench the idea in the minds of workers than perhaps the solution to the problems of their jobs also means unionizing.
It’s no coincidence that the restaurant industry in which Starbucks workers operate has been the epicenter of worker frustration and revolt during the pandemic. In October 2020, I spoke to Saru Jayaraman, president of One Fair Wage, a nonprofit that advocates for an end to the sub-minimum wage for tipped workers. She told me she had never seen anything like the frustration expressed by restaurant workers:
I have never, in my twenty years of organizing service workers, experienced a moment like this. Thousands of workers across the country are saying, “We’re not going to do this, we’re not going to go back and risk our lives without a fair wage.
She wasn’t lying. At a time when more people in the United States are leaving their jobs to find better-paying work elsewhere than ever before, bar and restaurant workers are among the most likely to quit. But Starbucks baristas have chosen to stay and fight to lock in the changes for the foreseeable future; they chose to act in response to these intolerable conditions rather than simply move on to another terrible job.
A union at Starbucks cannot substitute for stronger contracts and new or revitalized unions elsewhere. But it puts unionization on the mind map for more workers. A growing number of people Starbucks relies on to run its stores want to unionize, and that’s a good thing. Their success strengthens the other fragments of the working class, not only by adding to the coffers of the SEIU to then organize other types of workers, but because it forces existing unions to think big, coordinate and consider s commit to a new organization in a way that they have often been reluctant to do.
And who knows? If Starbucks workers can unionize, perhaps the many other low-wage restaurant workers can too. Such a high-profile campaign can have an outsized impact by inspiring new organizations and re-energizing existing unions, capturing our imaginations and helping to build the commitment needed to change the destiny of working people. No one has a perfect roadmap for moving from union defeat to union revitalization; we should be open to the possibility that the path may begin in the most unlikely places.